Joy, my Chinese friend, called me the other day to ask for advice. Her son isn’t doing too well in school, he refuses to do homework and only wants to play video games. Irene from the UK sent a voice message to discuss the kindergarten adjustment of her niece. My cousin expressed worry about her very talented daughter starting school next year since she gets bored easily. From East or West, parents, cousins, grandparents are all concerned and involved in children’s education these days. This is totally unlike the upbringing in the past, when parents mostly cared to clothe, feed and keep their children safe. Somewhere along the way, we all realized that education is really important and that parents’ role must change.
Unfortunately, some parents took this to the extreme becoming so-called “helicopter” parents, or in China “tiger mums” and attempting to run every aspect of their children’s lives, education included. The results of that approach aren’t reassuring: while children might become successful, they often also become resentful and the relationship with parents suffers in the long run. But if parents set a clear goal – to find a balanced and effective approach to developing children’s good learning habits and attitude, then they should ask themselves some right questions at the right time.
1. Do we, as parents, value knowledge, learning and teachers and we demonstrate it daily?
My best students’ parents are often teachers themselves. I wondered what it is that they bring to the parenting that other parents don’t. Then, an essay written by my student explained it: “My parents never stop learning. They value school and education.” They are good role models! Children learn more by observing and imitating their parents than from what they are being told to do. Now let’s be honest. How often do we say in front of children that we are too old to learn, or that math “sucks”, or that the workshop organized by the company is “useless”? If you pay more attention to your attitude towards learning and knowledge, you will notice how children are only “copy-pasting” what you do and say.
2. Do we help children make their own schedules and plans or do we try to control every aspect of their learning?
“We have just finished homework!” my friend tells me excitedly.
“What do you mean by WE?” I ask.
“Emma won’t finish it by herself, so I have to help her!”
It brings back memories of my daughter hiding her homework under the pile of clothes so that she could avoid doing it. The teacher gave her a bad grade, of course, and I let it happen. She is responsible for her learning, for failure and accomplishments that come with the process.
As parents, we should help our children when they meet difficulties in learning, either by explaining something to them, or getting a tutor if necessary, but not by doing their work. Learners’ autonomy is a crucial aspect of learning success. Being in charge of their learning gives children a sense of control and freedom and prepares them better for higher education and adult life later on.
3. When children make mistakes, do we help them see the mistakes as opportunities for learning?
I asked my daughter, 13 years old at the time, to finish cooking pasta as I went out to do something. When I returned the house was full of smoke, the pot completely burnt and lunch destroyed. I wanted to scream at her for not being careful, for not being helpful and god knows what else, but fortunately the research I was reading about rushed into my head fast enough. Instead, I calmly said: “Hmmm, this didn’t really turn out well. If you were to do it again, what would you do differently?” (By the way, this is a very powerful question, I suggest using it often!) I could see her face relax and brain switch on. Immediately she mentioned attention, watching the pot, checking the time and temperature, etc.
I gave her an opportunity to reflect and learn from the failure. I helped her develop a “growth” mindset. There is a lot of research about our mindsets and how they affect our success in work, school or life. It comes down to having one of the two basic mindsets (we may have a different one in different life areas): fixed or growth mindset. Fixed mindset makes you see intelligence and abilities as innate and fixed, thus not open for change or improvement, and when facing a setback, mistake or a problem, people try to protect their intelligence by rationalizing, defending, getting angry, blaming others or circumstances. The growth mindset, on the other hand, makes you see all of the above as learning opportunities and challenges and opens you up to new knowledge, changes, and growth.
4. Do we encourage children to finish what they started?
Let’s imagine a situation. What would you tell your son/daughter if he/she failed to win a sports competition they really care about?
“The referee wasn’t fair!”
“You didn’t have luck this time.”
“That other boy pushed you. It is his fault.”
” Don’t worry you’ll do better next time.”
Another key ‘ingredient’ in school success, researched by Prof. Angela Duckworth, is grit – an ability to work for long periods of time, even when it’s hard and boring. In her own words, grit is like “running a marathon”.
According to the research about “grit”, the best answer would be something along these lines:
“You really tried this time, but it wasn’t enough to win.”
“Let’s see what else you can work on to improve and get better.”
“Maybe you should practice more / harder / in a different way.”
“To win the game takes a lot of effort, endurance, and persistence.”
5. Do we encourage children to reach out and ask for help when necessary?
High school physics wasn’t my forte. I struggled, to say the least. I was among the best students in class and very proud, so I tried to work it out by myself. Unsuccessfully! My grades kept getting worse until my ego deflated and I reached out to a friend, a physics whiz. Her explanations totally made sense and with a bit of tutoring my grades went back up! Realizing how important it is to ask for help when necessary, I tried to instill that into my daughter’s learning attitude. It didn’t work out immediately, but at one point in high school she figured it out – ask the teacher about essay writing, asks parents to get you a math tutor, organize a study group with classmates for Spanish. She turned her studying around completely.
Being a good role model, encouraging children to be responsible for their learning and ask for help when necessary, helping children develop focus, growth mindset and grit are all useful methods not only in education but also in life. Life skills matter as much as education does and our biggest parenting job is to raise independent, confident, responsible children capable of managing themselves, searching for their own path to success and happiness and finding their own place in the society.