Half Step Behind is Better than a Half Step Ahead
Every parent wants his or her child to be successful in everything they do, including academics. But are you preparing them for short-term or long-term success? Yes, there is a difference. And all too often the things we do to help our child be successful in the short-term are actually detrimental to his or her long-term success.
Please take a moment to read Strategies for Long-term Academic Success by Dr. Steve Kahn, a local psychologist author of Insightful Parenting: Making Moments Count. Dr. Kahn talks about the difference between short- and long-term strategies for accountability and how those strategies can help or delay your child’s academic success. Sometimes, being a half step behind is okay.
Strategies for Long-term Academic Success
Dr. Steve Kahn
Last year I was asked to write a column (Is it the Age?) to address the strategies parents can use to determine if a child’s problem is serious or “just” due to the age. This time the request is for a column on our children’s school experience.
But I chose the wording for the title! Please note that the phrase “long-term” is in italics, as if I am shouting. This is deliberate, and the following explanation will clarify why we use certain strategies and we refuse to use others.
Imagine a fourth or fifth grader being somewhat disorganized, losing track of when an assignment is due, finishing something but forgetting to hand it in, waiting until Sunday night to begin working on a project for Monday. Now, imagine a parent rushing in (with a tense, worried, frustrated or angry voice) and rescuing, enabling, and ensuring that the assignment gets done, a planner gets used, projects get started in a timely manner, etc. Sound like good parenting? Please don’t be too quick with your answer.
Too often in my twenty-eight year career I have seen under-achieving high school students who had parents who reacted exactly as above. These parents meant well but inadvertently prolonged their children’s academic problems by robbing them of the dignity of their own struggle. Let me tell you what I think happens.
The strategies for the short-term are not only different from the strategies for the long-term, they adversely affect the long-term. Since the life-influencing repercussions of fourth and fifth grade grades are small (compared to the repercussions of high school grades), it is almost always better to refrain from any strategies that hurt the long-term, even if those strategies would tidy up the immediate mess. Yes, their next report card will be better the more we do, but they are the ones in their grade. It is more important that they learn to be organized, to keep track of assignments and deadlines, to hand things in, and to plan ahead, and they will not learn how to do it if we do it for them. In fact, they may learn that they don’t have to learn these skills because they have “the cavalry” behind them, watching and waiting to roar in and bail them out. And they may sense our tension or anger in a way that hurts them more than our help is worth.
Holding them accountable is a strategy for the long-term. Imagine being a half-step behind them rather than a half-step ahead of them. Expect them to struggle with organization (follow through, task-completion, anticipating deadlines) and when they do, give them a consequence and some advice and wait. And wait. And do it again. Keep the house library-like (no screens) on school nights. Don’t sign them up for too many activities. Don’t sign yourself up for too many activities either! Be encouraging (“You’ll figure out how to take care of your school responsibilities.”) rather than discouraging (“How many times do I have to tell you to do your homework!”). Take them off the team if their grades drop. Don’t let them have friends over until they are all caught up. Parent attentively and actively, just don’t do their work for them. Their progress is usually slower and more uneven than we would prefer, but in this case, slow and easy wins the race. If you become impatient and make academics a source of parent-child tension, instead of slow and uneven progress you may find that you have poured concrete over a fourth grade problem that continues into high school. But with a patient and attentive approach, their fourth and fifth grade struggles provide important learning opportunities to develop the skills they will need for sixth and seventh grade, and for the rest of their lives.
Dr. Steve Kahn is a psychologist in St. Paul, Minnesota and the author of Insightful Parenting: Making Moments Count. Please check www.drstevekahn.com for more (free) articles about parenting or to learn more about the book, available both in paperback and as an audio book.