04 October 2008

Thought I'd share a little article I wrote for our PTA newsletter this month. Reprinted with permission from the author.....me!

Does the following scenario sound familiar in your household?

Your son forgot his homework…he did it – but he forgot to put it in his backpack. After he leaves, you see it and run it down to the school to make sure he has it.
What’s wrong with this scenario? What are the outcomes? What are the alternatives?
Letting our children manage their own lives has got to be one of the most difficult parenting challenges. We just want to do what’s best for our children – love them, support them, step in when they need help. Our challenge is being able to actually use stepping back as a strategy towards moving forward.
When we step in to “save” our children, we actually reinforce behaviors that we really don’t want to reinforce. This happened in my home just this morning. I left the house before anyone else…..but I knew there was a piece of errant homework sitting on the coffee table that my daughter needed to bring in. I could have so easily called home and asked my husband to tell my daughter to put it in her backpack. However, I needed to determine how I could support my daughter, without stepping in and taking over.
I decided to call my husband to get him on board with my strategy…..I asked him to simply check with the children before they left by saying “is there any homework, anything due, or anything else that needs to go in your backpack before you leave?” If my daughter takes that cue, and looks around, she should find it. If she doesn’t, then she will go to school without it.
What happens if she doesn’t have her homework? Well, homework will be called for, and she won’t have it. Ouch. Her teacher may ask her about it and she’ll have to make the choice of how to respond. She’ll most likely be marked “0” on that homework for the day. Ouch again. Or what if it was her lunch that she forgot to bring? Lunchtime comes….and yikes, she’s hungry. Not fun. Not life-or-death either.
These are the natural consequences and reinforcers for shaping a different behavior – in this case, the “forgetting” behavior. And frankly, it may need to happen a few times in order for it to truly reshape her behavior. Unfortunately, if we make the choice to step in and bring the homework, or the project, or the lunch to school, we continue to reinforce that it’s okay to forget because someone will step in to save you. This doesn’t fare well for successful life strategies. Someone will not step in to save you in college and in your career.
What would be more helpful is to help structure the strategy for not forgetting in the first place. Take a look with your child at their processes. If they are consistently forgetting things, then their systems aren’t working – and you can help them by working out some new systems with them that they can implement. What is happening to get organized for the school day? Is their backpack packed up before they go to bed? Do they use a checklist of items to check on before they leave for school? Do they look around the house just before leaving as a backup? Do they need a designated homework spot so that they always know where to look? Do they need to wake up 10-15 minutes earlier to give themselves time to do these things?
And what’s the academic implication of that homework that doesn’t get turned in? Well, that depends. In many cases, homework reinforces, enhances or delves a little more deeply into a subject taught during the week. Because she actually did the homework, then she hopefully captured that deeper understanding. She should easily be able to participate in further discussion of the subject. If she is tested on it, she should be fine. She simply has to deal with a score of “0” on her homework (possibly more than once). It is not the end of the world.
We all do our best to be great, supportive parents. We feel like we’ve failed if we don’t support them in the every possible way. Sometimes, we just need to take a fresh look at their needs and decide what is truly most helpful – saving them for now, or teaching them for now and forever.
Next month: The Importance of Family Dinners.

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