Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Parenting Expert on Underachievement (It Starts with the Parents?)

I would like to consider an excerpt from "Between Parent & Child," by Dr. Haim G. Ginott [all emphasis in original]. The author is the mentor of Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish of "How to Talk so Children Will Listen, and Listen so Children Will Talk." I love those books even though I sometimes have a hard time extrapolating their advice to my own situation. In a way, I like Ginott's books better, all two of them, because the way the abstract principles are discussed seems more understandable, though still miles away from my concrete use of them. As a homeschooler in specific, the following passage really stood out.

This also echoes something Lisa VanDamme mentioned in her recorded lecture. She talks about opting out of the public school system for a homeschooling alternative but mentions that it would be preferable if the teacher was not the parent. I was accepting of that statement (heck, I'd happily hire someone else to teach my kids if I could afford it and I thought they were teaching them with the proper pedagogy). But I didn't get the whole import of why she didn't recommend parents as teachers. Read on if you're curious.


From the first grade on, parents' attitudes should convey that homework is strictly the responsibility of the child and his teacher. Parents should not nag children about homework. They should not supervise or check the homework (the writer is well aware that this policy may be contrary to the teacher's demands), except at the invitation of the children. When a parent takes over the the responsibility for homework, the child lets him, and the parent is never again free of this bondage. Homework may become a weapon in the child's hands to punish, blackmail, and exploit the parents. Much misery could be avoided, and much joy added to home life, if parents would show less interest in the minute details of the child's assignments and instead convey in no uncertain terms: "Homework is your responsibility. Homework is for you what work is for us."

The value of homework in the early grades should not be overestimated. There are many fine schools that assign no homework to young children. The pupils seem to gain just as much wisdom as those who struggle with assignments at the ages of six and seven. The main value of homework is that it gives children the experience of working on their own. To have this value, however, homework must be graded to the child's capacity, so that he may work independently with little aid from others. Direct help may only convey to the child to the child that he is helpless. Indirect help, however, may be useful.

For instance, we might make sure that the child has privacy, a suitable desk, and reference books. We might also help him figure out the right time for homework, in accordance with the seasons. In the mild afternoons of spring and fall, a child's fancy will surely turn first to playing and (hopefully) then to homework. In the cold days of winter, homework must come first if there is to be TV later.

Some children work better when they may chew a pencil, scratch their heads, or rock a chair. Our comments and restrictions increase frustration and interfere with their mental work.

The child's homework should not be interrupted by questions and errands that can wait. We should remain in the background giving comfort and support rather than instruction and assistance. Occasionally, we may clarify a point or explain a sentence. However, we should avoid comments such as:

"If you weren't such a scatterbrain, you would remember your assignment."
"If you only listened to the teacher you would know your homework."

Our help should be given sparingly but sympathetically. We listen rather than lecture. We show the road but expect the traveler to reach his destination on his own power.

A parent's attitude towards the school and the teacher may influence a child's attitude toward homework. If a parent habitually berates the school and belittles the teacher, the child will draw obvious conclusions.

Parents should bolster the teacher's position and support his policies regarding responsible homework.

When the teacher is strict, the parent has a wonderful opportunity to be sympathetic:

"It's not an easy year--so much work!"
"It's really tough this year."
"He sure is a strict teacher."
"I hear he demands a lot."
"I hear he is especially tough about homework. I guess there will be lots of work this year."

It is important to avoid daily flareups over homework:

"Look here, Reggie, from now on you are going to work on your spelling every afternoon of every day--including Saturdays and Sundays. No more playing for you and no TV either."
"Roger! I am sick and tired of reminding you about homework. Daddy is going to see to it that you get down to business. We don't want illiterates in our family."

Threats and nagging are common because they make one believe that something is being done about the situation. In reality such admonitions are worse than useless. They only result in a charged atmosphere, an irritated parent, and an angry child.

Many capable children lag in their homework and underachieve in school as an unconscious rebellion against their parents' ambitions. In order to grow up and mature, each child needs to attain a sense of individuality and separateness from his mother and father. When parents are too emotionally involved with the scholastic record of the child, he experiences interference with his autonomy. If homework and high grades become diamonds in his parents' crown, the child may unconsciously prefer to bring home a crown of weeds that is at least his own. by not attaining his parents' goals, the young rebel achieves a sense of independence. Thus the need for uniqueness may push a child into failure, regardless of parental pressure and punishment. As one child said, "They can take away the TV and the allowance, but they cannot take away my failing grades."

It is apparent that resistance to studying is not a simple problem that can be solved by getting either tough or lenient with children. Increased pressure may increase a child's resistance while a laissez faire attitude may convey acceptance of immaturity and irresponsibility. The solution is neither easy nor quick. Some children may need psychotherapy to resolve their struggle against their parents and to gain satisfaction in achievement, instead of underachievement.

Others may need tutoring with a psychologically oriented person. It is imperative that the parent not do the tutoring. Our goal is to convey to the child that he is an individual in his own right--apart from us--and responsible for his successes and failures. When the child is allowed to experience himself as an individual with self-originating needs and goals, he begins to assume responsibility for his own life and its demands.

I've made no bones about the difficulty I've had with my homeschooling so far this year. We've had some tough patches with complete refusal to do work. That coincided quite well with my realization that how well educated my children are is a direct reflection of my "work" as a homeschooling parent. For a month, schooling became about them as a reflection of me. So it was only periphally about my kids but mostly about "my diamonds," as phrased by Dr. Ginott.

This set up a double disappointment for myself. Not only was pushing the kids (and all that lecturing, threatening, and lack of sympathy were what I was pushing with) a miserable act of dictatorship on my part. It made me feel mean. Possibly because I somehow recognized that I had abandoned some of the parenting ideas I had believed so worthwhile from my reading when the kids were younger. It also made the kids combative almost instantaneously. Which made them, thus me, miserable.

Back to the general gist of the excerpt. Assuming the author is correct (I think it is--it matches up with what I've seen), how to encourage children's independence while homeschooling? I'm more concerned about preserving the ability to homeschool (without a major outsourcing of the effort which I couldn't afford anyway) and support my kids' needs and my ultimate goals as a parent and a teacher.

Could it ultimately come down to motivation? Lisa VanDamme has done a huge multi-part article on motivation. She attributes motivation in her classroom to appealing to a child's own sense. Radical unschoolers wait for the child to seemingly-to-me (I admitted haven't read any of it) wander into something and everything is equally valid because the kid picks it. The child-led unschooler or informal homeschooler tries to make all of the required topics interesting by using a possibly unrelated topic, usually kid-approved and based on some limited choices or interest-of-the-moment, to meld into some required subjects (and in the case of math, I can imagine the unit study math of 'two penguins and five penguins problems') and then the rest of the curriculum is 'filler' based on the original topic. Charlotte Mason believed in gentle, but thorough, schooling (I think). How to get the kids to buy-in? I'm not sure. The classical homeschooler (Charlotte Mason is usually considered a kissing-cousin) may use some of the above techniques, but the desired outcome of the type of schooling, thinking ability and rhetorical writing, does not give clues for how to motivate. Religious education usually has one ultimate purpose, though there may be a second that is fundamental to type of curriculum--a rigorous education that is very similar to traditional schooling. Other motivations that may be used that have not yet been mentioned include authoritative (do it because I say so or you'll be punished--which is the dangerous water I'm getting out of), make it fun (lots of games), bribing, and I'm sure there are a lot of other options.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. Loved the long quote and your thoughtful and loving ruminations. I have the luxury of checking back to see how you figured it all out. : ) Best wishes!

Amy Mossoff said...

This is an issue I'm concerned about as a future homeschooler. I think you're on the right track with the motivation theory. The child must be self-motivated, but it is the teacher who must give the child just the right information to spur that motivation. Still, I worry about the mixing of parental and teacher roles. Do you have clear boundaries for school time versus family time or does it mix together?

Kim said...

I do have distinct school time. I also have a school room, which I feel really helps the kids get in the school mode.

Motivation is part of it. As I've been thinking about it more, I also think that correction is probably an even bigger issue. I think the method of teaching can help too. Not to mention how vested you feel in your child's thinking processes.

I think this is the most serious and fundamental concern I've ever had about homeschooling.

Kim said...

Thank you, Anon!