The 4th Grade Question & The 4th Grade Voice

In my work as a parenting coach, I am often working with families who encounter difficulties with their children over homework issues. In recent years, there appears to be an increase in the number of children who come home from school and have no idea of how to complete their homework.

Many parents get sucked into a pattern of responding to children, who are presenting as helpless and incompetent…when in reality…they’re not!

They’re not helpless. They’re not incompetent. Instead, they are capable, intelligent, and simply need to learn how to manage and organize their intellectual and academic skills.

How would you recognize this pattern?

It would sound like this:

  • “I can’t do this!”
  • “I don’t know how to.”
  • “The teacher didn’t show me how to do this.”
  • “I can’t.”
  • “I’m stupid.”
  • “I don’t know what to do.”
  • “I can’t do it.”
  • “I need help….I need help.”

If you notice, each of these questions or comments might appear to have some legitimacy. And in reality, it does! Given the level of effort applied to the homework in front of them, these comments make perfectly good sense. If we’re paying close attention, we notice that your son or daughter glanced at the homework, looked up at the ceiling, rolled their eyes, and then began to cry for help.

There is no resolve. There is no effort. There is no pencil moving to figure out the problem.

Instead, it’s just a pattern of helplessness.

It’s a pattern of learned helplessness. It’s learned helplessness because they have learned that being helpless and incapable only serves them.

How does it serve them? It serves them because three things are happening to promote their continued incompetence and expanding helplessness. These are:

  • First, Mom or Dad ends up working harder at getting their homework done than they do. This relieves them of that burden.
  • Secondly, very little real effort is required. Instead, it’s “pretend effort.”
  • Third, and most importantly, the helplessness is repeatedly and consistently rewarded with parental attention and energy.

When you combine these three factors, inevitably, the child becomes more and more helpless and incompetent, when asked to work their intellectual muscle and to expand their skills.

Most parents I work with are aware that their children are bright and capable, and find themselves frustrated as this pattern emerges and worsens year after year. Yet, they also believe their children, and “buy into” the notion that their son or daughter needs constant help and guidance.

The problem is that all of this parental assistance is like a crutch. If your child walked on crutches for the rest of their lives, would they ever learn to walk without a crutch? Of course not!

If the intellectual muscle is not worked, it gets weak. It’s just the way it is.

Learn the rule of competence!

The rule of competence is simply this. Regardless of your child’s tested abilities, I encourage you to assume competence and ability to learn. Assume that they’ll get it, even if they have to work harder than most of the kids in their class.

Notice the key distinction here as I emphasize that “they must work harder” because it is your son or daughter who will have to do the work for them to learn the necessary skills. If it’s a parent, a teacher, or a tutor who ends up working harder than the child…then the child never gets. It’s like going to the gym and having your trainer lift the weights for you. The muscle will never get stronger if someone else is always doing the work.

So the rule of competence requires that you assume that your children are capable, and respond accordingly.

How do you turn this into a practical strategy?

You follow this very simple rule: Fourth-grade question. Fourth-grade voice.

Make sure that you only respond to your children, if they ask a question that is in a voice that is appropriate for a fourth-grader, and the question is at a fourth-grade level (if your child is in fourth grade). Of course, if your child is in second grade, the rule would apply as follows: Second-grade voice… Second-grade question.

In other words, you wouldn’t respond to whining and complaining. You wouldn’t respond to a general statement such as, “I can’t do it.”

It has to be a specific question, stated in a voice that is not whining and helpless. It has to be a question that reflects some attention given to the question and the challenge that is in front of your child.

Such questions do not typically come out of children who have adopted a helpless posture. They refuse to even look at the work, and often push it away while screaming at the top of their lungs that they simply don’t know what to do next.

In this situation, your job is to simply ignore everything that doesn’t meet the rule of competence. You don’t remind them that they can do the work. You don’t point them in the right direction to where the answer is found. You don’t go over the question for the fourth time. You don’t remind them that they are smart. You don’t tell them that they are wasting time. You don’t let them know that they are driving you crazy.

Instead….you ignore all of the drama. You ignore all of the helplessness. You ignore all the whining and complaining.

You only respond to… fourth-grade question… fourth-grade voice. Notice that when you follow this rule, your child will learn to ask questions that you can answer. The question is something you can respond to.

Now granted, it may take several days of completely wasted sessions of incessant whining and drama (which you completely ignore) for your son or daughter to realize that you aren’t going to rescue them anymore. They will have to put forth some effort, to make some headway. They’ll have to put attention and energy into their homework, to develop a question that you could help them answer.

As a final note, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that your son or daughter is now forced to ask a question that not only can use answer…but it’s a question that they could answer. Given that it’s a question that they could answer, they’ll begin to be able to answer their questions.

I hope you can see the magic in how this works. It’s an amazing transformation that occurs in a matter of a week or two if you can stick to your guns on this.

Just remember… fourth-grade question… fourth-grade voice. Ignore everything else, and your child’s competence will magically emerge.

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