Most parents understand the importance of nurturing independence. This is particularly important when it comes to learning. One of the most important tasks we assign to children is that of acquiring the information that will prepare them for life. Parents are told to sit with their children, read with their children, help them with their homework. This is sound advice.
However, some children quickly learn that they can avoid struggle by asking for help. This may not seem like a significant problem, but a pattern can develop in which children turn to parents for help more and more often. There’s something wrong if you’re putting more effort into their schoolwork than they are.
The Dependent Student
Children are born with a wide range of abilities and skills. A few are exceptional and a few have serious learning difficulties; most fall into the average range. As they proceed through the elementary and middle school years, they will face academic tasks that are more and more challenging. Ideally, the message they get from their parents and teachers will be “You can handle this.” But many children get a different message: “You can’t do this on your own. You need my help.”
Children should be able to ask for and receive help from their parents, but it can be devastating to them to be bailed out of every frustrating situation. When parents consistently rescue their kids from the slightest upset or struggle, children don’t develop the skills to handle their frustration. They don’t learn to focus on solving the problem.
The seriousness of this pattern can be hard to see in the elementary school years, but if parents help too much, children are progressively less able to work on their own. As the academic challenges increase, they become more and more dependent on their parents to get through their homework. As they move into adolescence, they begin to resist being dependent; but as they push away from their parents, they’re pushing away from their academic underpinnings. Their performance in school deteriorates, and struggles and arguments begin to unfold.
These kids didn’t acquire the habit of learning. Instead, they acquired the habit of relying on their parents to get the work done. The situation is devastating for the children, because they can’t keep up on their own. It’s equally devastating for the parents, who’ve worked so hard to help their children learn. So, what do you do? First, you must look at …
The Parental Mindset
One of the keys to successful parenting is the old axiom “Keep a winning strategy and let go of a losing strategy.” If your children are struggling in school and you’re engaging in every form of coercion to try to motivate them, you probably know already that your strategy isn’t working. This is a losing strategy. Lose it now or it will exhaust you and leave you feeling angry and frustrated with your child.
The mindset that works to produce long-term success is simple: Relinquish control and embrace your influence. As we struggle with child-related problems, we tend to tighten up our controls. We try to control their behavior, to instruct them, command them, and demand that they respond to our requests.
But the reality is that we cannot control our children. We can only control ourselves and the environment that affects our children. The secret is to spend our time mastering our own behavior, and our control of the environment that shapes our children’s responses.
The challenge is to learn how to control our own behavior so we can influence or teach our children to move in healthy and productive directions. The next challenge is to understand how we use structure and consequences to help shape that behavior.
Successful parenting includes firm, clear limits and consistency with those limits. We learn that words are often ineffective, so we must know how to use action. This mindset is the secret to relaxed, yet highly effective parenting. You will find more about this topic by reading this article Click Here for Parent Mindset.
Below is an outline of the how to begin to establish the Habits of Success in your home. If interested in my detailed audio program, Homework Habits Made Easy, you will find a detailed plan that explains every component of a successful homework plan. You will have confidence that you can get your child on track for success. To learn about this proven program for success, click here for more information on Homework Habits Made Easy.
How do you create an independent learner?
1. Let your kids know that a change is coming.
Sit down with your kids and tell them calmly that you’re going to be making some changes. Acknowledge your responsibility for some of the difficulties in the past. For example, you shouldn’t have nagged them so much about their homework. If you’ve actually been doing some of their homework for them, apologize for that and tell them you won’t be doing it in the future. Explain that you’re establishing a structure that the family is going to stick with, one that will help all of you.
2. Work then play: The structure of success
Tell the kids that the structure is “work then play”. It’s very simple: You do your work, then you play. People of all ages can organize their lives to produce success at school, at work, and at home. When parents stick with this structure, kids learn healthy habits early on. They learn to get their homework done and take care of their chores around the house. They actually become efficient at getting their work done quickly, so they can enjoy the benefits of play.
How does this structure work in practice? When your children get home from school, they have a 5- or 10-minute break. After that, they do their homework. During this time, there are no visitors, no TV, no video, no phone calls, no playing outside, no toys, no extended conversations with Mom and Dad. You establish a fundamental ground rule that does not change until they graduate from high school. They must finish their work, then they can play with all the goodies you work so hard to provide for them.
If they don’t want to do their work, let it be. They are not allowed to play in any form until it’s done.
Let me repeat: If they don’t want to do their work, let it be. They are not allowed to play in any form until it’s done. Nothing… until their work is done.
You’ve stacked the deck in your favor here, because if they choose not to do their homework, they’ll ultimately be bored to tears. It may take a few days for this to sink in, but be patient. Allow them to be totally and completely bored and they’ll choose to get their homework finished.
This ground rule must remain firm and unchanging. It doesn’t matter if it gets dark early and they won’t be able to go outside and play. It’s essential that they learn to get their homework done first. Or say it’s Saturday morning and you’re going swimming with the kids at a friend’s house. The rule still applies. Room clean. Chores done. Then you go swim. Even if you’re hot and tired and can’t wait to jump in the pool, stick to your guns. Work then play. Every day.
Do nagging and lecturing and pleading work? In my experience with many parents, they’re always short-term solutions. This approach only leads to more nagging, more pleading, and, ultimately, your taking more responsibility for your children’s behavior. As your children get older, you’ll end up arguing and fighting with them. In fact, this can start happening as early as five years old.
Instead, make the requirements clear: Work then play. You don’t lecture, remind, or repeatedly discuss this requirement. Rather, you remain firm and unwavering in your denial of play activities until the work is complete. Take the focus off controlling your child’s behavior and focus on the circumstances surrounding the behavior.
Don’t try to force them to do their homework; just allow them to be bored. They may resist or argue, but don’t engage with them by negotiating or yelling. Just walk away and keep the structure in place. At first this may mean locking all the toys in the trunk of the car or unhooking the cable from the TV set or sending the neighborhood friends home. But under no circumstances do you nag or push or prod. Instead, you allow your children to have the opportunity to learn from the experience that you’ve created for them.
4. Focus on efforts, not outcomes.
When parents try to influence their children’s academic behavior, they often focus on outcomes. But when you praise the A your daughter got on a test, it’s too late! The effort that produced the A occurred well before the test, and that’s where your attention should be. If your son normally takes an hour to do his homework, catch him once or twice during that hour. Don’t interrupt, just touch him on the shoulder, smile at him, ask him if he wants some juice. If he’s looking out the window or playing with his pencil, ignore him. Engage him briefly only when’s he’s actually working. As he’s finishing up, give him a hug and praise his hard work.
Of course you’ll notice when they do well, but try to keep most of your attention on the effort they put forth rather than the outcome. This way, they can feel good about themselves whenever they do their best, no matter what their best means in terms of grades. If they learn to always put forth their best effort, what more could you want?
5. Focus on independent learning and thinking.
If you want your children to be independent learners, don’t sit with them and guide them through their homework. Don’t answer every question and help them with every little challenge. They need to learn how to cope with the challenges that come with learning. The more you jump to help your children deal with frustration, the more incapable they’ll be of handling their frustrations.
Instead, think of yourself as a coach. A good coach isn’t on the player’s case every minute. She gives instruction and allows the player the opportunity to learn. She ignores whining and complaining and notices efforts to solve problems. She allows frustration and notices improvement. If your children genuinely need help with their homework, offer it, but don’t reply to every little plea for assistance. Tell them you’ll help them at the end of the homework session and encourage them to resolve problems on their own. If they’re not even trying, ignore their pleas for assistance. Notice them when they’re making the effort, not when they’re begging and pleading for help.
The power of these strategies lies in the consistent and relentless application of an action-oriented approach, which uses consequences and few words. I’ve seen it work time and time again, even in the most difficult and challenging situations.
You can, of course, get more when you buy the Homework Habits Made Easy Program. In the program, I walk you through every detail of setting up your home so that the habits of success build easily and naturally. Well…easily after a while. The first few days may be a bit tough…the first few weeks may be a bit tough…depending upon your child. But every child gets it…if you stick to your guns…only because you have more leverage than you have been willing to use. You also learn what not to do, and how avoiding mistakes can quickly get your kids on track.
You can also read more on the Making Homework a Habit page.