With the new year upon us, re-energizing your student about learning can seem challenging. With the right tactics, however, motivating your child to tackle 2018 doesn’t have to be a source of conflict. Techniques like promoting leadership or discovering your student’s preferred learning style can help both you and your child start the year strong.
1. Experiment with different learning styles
According to Howard Gardner, there are seven types of intelligence, also known as learning styles: interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinesthetic, linguistic, logical, musical, and visual. Gardner’s theory states that each student learns differently. For this reason, identifying which styles suit your student best can help her feel more confident. For example, she may absorb material more effectively when it is written on the chalkboard during class or on paper during homework time.
One key component of motivating your child is helping her feel confident in her abilities. Talk about how she prefers to interact with information, or experiment with several ways together. Discovering her individual learning style (or styles) can help your child begin the year motivated to tackle what lies ahead.
2. Encourage leadership skills
Is your student in fourth or fifth grade, or middle school? If so, it can be very helpful to urge him to take leadership of his education and any projects he may face in the coming year. Yes, you will still be present to assist when necessary. But if your child feels that he is in control of his education, he may be more likely to excel.
Allowing your student to practice leadership can take many forms, such as letting him choose which homework to tackle first. This may sound like a simple decision, but it is important to promote positive decision-making skills in your student’s everyday life. Discuss any areas where he would like to exert more leadership skills—perhaps he would like to help his little sister with reading or he would like to choose his extracurricular activities for the spring.
3. Foster an outside connection to learning
Your student will learn a great deal in the classroom, but engaging in activities outside school that continue this learning can be very beneficial. There are many ways you can strengthen your child’s connection to learning, both inside and outside your home. She could conduct simple experiments if she is interested in science, or write short stories if she is intrigued by the arts. Ask her about her interests and gauge what she might find exciting.
Another great way to motivate your student is to take field trips to local learning centers, museums, and historic sites. If your child is struggling with science, one way to get her excited about the subject might be to take her to a science museum and let her explore. She may find connections to information she has learned in the classroom and, in turn, may gain a better understanding of the concept. For example, if she is studying weather in science class, but cannot fully grasp the concept, she could explore the weather exhibit at a local science center. This idea can work for other subjects and locations as well, such as art museums and libraries. Speak with your student about areas where she is struggling or would like to delve deeper, and research how you can incorporate an outside learning connection into her education.
Motivating your student in the new year doesn’t have to revolve around helping him set resolutions. If you initiate an open dialogue about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, you can successfully motivate him to succeed in 2018.
Caitlin Grove is an Associate Content Coordinator for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.
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As a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, I’ve found that using puzzles in the classroom has benefits for students of all learning levels and abilities. Solving puzzles adds variety to daily lessons, helps children practice math concepts, and develops mathematical thinking—not to mention that puzzles are a fun and engaging way to bring math “to life”!
Puzzles serve as a great motivator for all types of math learners because they promote creativity, perseverance, and strategic thinking. Students who are struggling in math may find a new route through puzzling. At the same time, students who are comfortable with (or even proficient in) mathematical concepts can be challenged to think about learning in a different way. Puzzles can help solidify concepts and encourage deeper understanding, and they also provide the opportunity to manipulate, problem solve, and promote creativity.
Types of Math Puzzles
I have used a variety of puzzles in my classroom that have helped my students learn a number of different math skills:
These puzzles offer students practice with their visual and spatial skills. Mazes also help develop this skill set.
Pentominoes are a fun way to practice geometry skills as well as visual and spatial skills. Here’s how I use them: First, my students learn about what makes a shape a pentomino and how a set of pentominoes can be manipulated into larger or more complex shapes. After becoming more comfortable, students learn how to put several pentominoes together to create their own puzzles. Once their pieces are arranged, they trace the outside of the new shape, remove the pentominoes, and challenge their peers to solve their puzzle. It’s a great example of bringing math to life for students, and giving them the opportunity to develop their own ideas and spatial understandings.
These popular puzzles are ones that give children an opportunity to practice using their deductive reasoning skills and problem-solving skills.
There are all kinds of logic puzzles, but I use grid logic puzzles most often. Each puzzle has a series of categories and a number of options within each category. Each option is used once, and the goal is to figure out which options are linked together based on a series of clues. Each puzzle has one solution and is solved using simple logical processes.
Just like their previous work with pentominoes, after giving my students several logic puzzles, they are now creating their own! Many of the students choose to create puzzles with a classmate, which provides opportunities for collaboration and discussion about the puzzle. This helps to build classroom community. In addition to learning how to problem solve, students are learning about the importance of being specific, composing clear clues and directions (algorithms), and reviewing their work.
Math riddles are another type of puzzle that challenges students to think critically, logically, and creatively. Examples are polygon riddles and other brainteasers.
Math riddles are an excellent tool to help students think critically and to practice their problem-solving skills. One example of how I use math riddles is during our geometry unit, when the students are learning about polygons. I give the students one clue at a time, and they remove possibilities from their shape cards. An example of a polygon riddle: Clue 1: This polygon is not a parallelogram. Clue 2: This polygon does not have any right angles. Clue 3: This polygon does not have any obtuse angles. Clue 4: This polygon has exactly 2 congruent sides. What is the name of the polygon? Answer: Isosceles triangle. These riddles reinforce the students’ understanding of shapes and geometry vocabulary like parallel sides, perpendicular sides, types of angles, and lines of symmetry. After solving several riddles, the students create their own puzzles to share with each other. Another type of puzzle that challenges kids to think creatively is brainteasers, such as: What occurs twice in a week, once in a year but never in a day? Answer: The letter e.
Puzzles are a wonderful way to draw kids into math learning. After all, solving math problems is, in a way, just like solving puzzles. When kids see mathematics as puzzles, they are more engaged and have a more flexible approach to learning math.
Jackie Metcalf is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Falk Laboratory School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has been teaching for 19 years. She is married and has two children who enjoy puzzles.
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Studying can be a true challenge for children—for some, the thought of having to sit at a desk for hours alone causes dread. It can be difficult to think of ways to help make your elementary school student’s studying less tedious, so here are three creative ways to help.
Role-playing can easily energize a study session. Many children already use this strategy during their free time, so the association of role-play with an exciting activity can work to increase positive energy around studying. Role-play suits any character, but it can be particularly helpful to ask your child to be a teacher. You can be the student. Children can learn a great deal when they teach material to someone else. Speaking through it helps them to articulate concepts and ideas. It also reveals gaps in their knowledge, which they can use to better target their review. You can ask questions that a student would ask in order to test your child’s knowledge of the material.
You might also try bringing other characters into the mix. Examples include Kermit the Frog or Hermione Granger—any persona that would be fun!
While studying is traditionally associated with sitting down at a desk or table, this doesn’t suit every learning style—particularly kinesthetic learners. But kinesthetic learning, which focuses on physical activities, isn’t just for kinesthetic learners. Nearly every child can benefit from associating study material with movement. If the weather is nice, go outside and take a walk with your child. The change in scenery can reinvigorate his study time, and the elements in the environment and in specific movements can strengthen the associations his brain makes with concepts. For example, try quizzing him—or have him quiz himself—while hopping or jumping. This can provide a new way to access information; your child can recall “the topic I studied while hopping.”
This strategy can involve any type of art. Drawing, painting, sculpture, and sketching are all great ways to visualize information that might otherwise stay stagnant on the page. Encourage your child to represent new concepts or ideas in as many ways as possible: mind maps, tables, webs, etc. Perhaps there’s one specific type of visualization that she gravitates toward. This method can help her understand facts and relationships that might otherwise be hard to describe verbally. You might also have your child try different mediums beyond paper and pencil, marker, and crayon. Keep in mind that they don’t even need to be permanent works of art. Perhaps she would like to practice math problems with shaving cream in the bathtub, or spell words using magnetic letters on the refrigerator. Maybe you could create a story together around specific terms or vocabulary words that she needs to remember.
Finally, studying can be both more enjoyable and productive with a buddy. That buddy might be you, a willing sibling, or a friend.
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By the time kids enter kindergarten today, most are, unsurprisingly, well versed in the basics of digital communication. Which isn’t a bad thing, except if it takes the place entirely of learning to write by hand.
For many kids now, that’s what has happened. When the Common Core Standards became the law of the land in 2009, handwriting curricula was not part of the package. Many schools, feeling the need to pack in more class time for technology instruction and test prep, let handwriting go by the wayside, especially cursive instruction, which was generally taught in second and third grade, but the preference today is to teach in third and fourth grade.
Then something interesting occurred.
“Lots of studies started to show that kids write more, write faster, and express more ideas when they write with a pen or pencil than when on a keyboard,” says Virginia Berninger, a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, who is a leading researcher on children and handwriting.
Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, agrees. She also says the act of physically forming letters engages young brains in unique ways. Not only does it support letter recognition, it also plays a role in early recruitment in letter processing in regions of the brain known to be connected to successful reading. “It helps with spelling, too,” Berninger adds, “because when you link letters into words, you form a spelling unit that makes it easier to pull the word in and out of memory.” Studies have also shown cursive to help children with their expression of ideas, and the accuracy of their reading.
The research that’s come out in the wake of the Common Core Standards has caused a backlash of sorts, with states (14 of them now) adopting formal handwriting curriculum back into the classroom. Yes, keyboarding is essential (and needs to be well taught, meaning attention to professional development for teachers), but there’s value in penmanship, as well. “All the research, over many, many years, points to teaching students to be hybrid writers,” Berninger concludes.
So, what does a hybrid writer look like?
- Ages 6-8 (grades 1 and 2): learn and practice manuscript, aka block letters or print;
- Ages 7-12 (grades 3-7): learn and practice cursive, aka script;
- Ages 9 and up (grades 4+): learn and practice keyboarding, aka touch typing.
Let’s break it down, just a little, so we can help support penmanship at home.
In the early years, from preschool through first grade, we can help kids develop the fine motor skills they need to hold a pencil. Encourage fun activities that work the thumb and pointer finger together: pick-up sticks, crafts with chenille sticks, playing marbles, squeezing eyedroppers, and playing board games like Operation. Put your own phone down from time to time so you can model what it’s like to craft a handwritten card (get their help with affixing the stamp and mailing), create a shopping list, or write special dates on a wall calendar. “We need to show our kids how to use multiple writing tools at every stage,” Berninger says.
When cursive instruction kicks in at school, applaud it! “Every class should have an instructional handwriting class,” says Berninger. “If yours doesn’t, you should ask for it, and if it does, let teachers and administrators know you approve.”
At home don’t drill your kids, workbook style, because studies have shown that children balk when parents act like teachers. Instead, keep it fun. This is a great time to introduce kids to calligraphy, fonts, and typefaces. Check out the works of Linda Scott, the author of lots of Bubble Writer books that are super appealing for young children. Ask your kids to handwrite place cards for dinner using their fanciest script. Have markers and colored pencils in easy reach so kids get as used to picking up a writing implement as they are to pulling out their phones for quick communication.
And then there’s the process of actually learning to type. With two years of formal printing practice, and two more years of rigorous cursive, keyboarding is the final step to raising a hybrid writer. At school this will look like an integrated approach of touch typing and other keyboarding skills into existing literacy programs. “When touch typing is introduced, kids learn it quickly, and it frees them up to look at the screen,” says Berninger. The method is far superior to “hunting and pecking,” which is not efficient at all. The goal is for kids to look at the screen while they type rather than down at the keyboard so they can focus better on their thoughts and ideas. There are tons of touch-typing games online, so orient some screen time in that direction to support the instruction your school-age child is getting at school.
Pam Abrams has written for and about children for many years, and currently serves as Program Director for Jacob’s Digs, a nonprofit organization in New York City. She has two children.
When helping your elementary-school student with homework, it’s important to be prepared. Keep reading to learn four ways you can help your child get the most out of this educational experience.
1. Show—don’t tell
It can be tempting, particularly with younger students who are struggling, to give away answers when helping with homework. You don’t have to be a teacher to know that, in the long run, your child isn’t learning the material with this approach. Think of creative ways to help her find the answer she is looking for. Discuss a scenario that may apply to the problem at hand, use a household object to illustrate how to reach the answer, or have your child describe how she thinks the problem should be solved.
2. Ask questions
Another important tip to help students find answers is to constantly ask them encouraging questions. There are many ways you can help children reach the correct answer without giving it away. Sometimes, simply hearing the problem phrased in another way can help a student refocus and reach the answer. Prompting questions such as “What does this problem remind you of?” or “Have you seen any other questions like this one?” can also help your child remember examples given to him in class.
3. Disconnect from electronics
In today’s society, electronics are becoming an increasingly present part of students’ lives. However, if it isn’t necessary to your student completing her homework, an electronic device should not be a part of homework time. Electronics can be an obvious distraction to your child’s homework, and this can prevent her from fully processing information. Your child might not be the biggest fan of the no-electronics rule, so best practices include limiting your own electronics use when working with her, and incentivizing time without electronics with rewards.
4. Take occasional breaks
The electronics ban doesn’t need to last from the moment your child gets home from school to when he finishes every last bit of homework. Set reasonable expectations by letting him take occasional breaks. For younger students, these breaks will occur naturally as they lose interest or motivation to keep working. When this happens, take a moment together to relax and reset. For older students, schedule break time together. Breaks can come after completing homework for one subject or on a time-based schedule—whichever makes the most sense for your child. During this time, let him eat a snack, play on his electronics, or spend some time outside.
While helping your child with homework can seem like an overwhelming task, it doesn’t need to be. Supporting him comes in many forms, and not all of them require you to be an incredible teacher. By acknowledging that the work he is doing is valuable, you can help validate the time and effort he puts into completing homework assignments. With plenty of prompting questions and an occasional break or two, you and your child will be on your way to success in no time at all!
Samhitha Krishnan is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.
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As summer comes to a close, both you and your child are sure to experience a range of feelings about the start of school—a possible mixture of anxiety, excitement, relief, and stress. So how do you go about handling this change? Here are five tips for successfully tackling the back-to-school transition.
1. Get organized
One of the most entertaining (and practical!) back-to-school tasks is school-supply shopping. Reference the supply list provided by your student’s school, and check if you have any materials from previous years that still have some life in them. Then, involve your child in picking colorful folders, pencils, and so on that are required and fit in your budget. Don’t forget about a calendar—while your student will have a planner (often supplied by the school), choose a way to display family and school events to keep the entire family in the know. Lastly, check to see that your child’s student records and paperwork are up-to-date.
2. Ease back into a schedule
If you’re like most families, your child’s bedtime routine and daily schedule have relaxed over the summer. Several weeks or a week before school starts, have your student begin going to sleep and waking up earlier so he gets used to an early wake-up time. Try 10 minutes earlier at a time, for example, so the shift doesn’t feel too jarring. Plan a morning routine together so your child knows what to expect. (Who will get breakfast ready? Will an alarm wake him up? Who is responsible for lunch?)
3. Discuss and work through anxiety
Going back to school can be stressful for a number of reasons, whether your child is going to a new school or simply a new grade. Talk with her about any worries she might have, encouraging her to discuss with siblings, cousins, or friends if she’d rather talk to someone her own age. Discuss any new procedures or situations she might find herself in, like how to use a locker or what to do if she can’t find a classroom. This is a great time for role playing!
4. Prioritize healthy meals and snacks
Summer can be full of treats, like ice cream every night or snacks any time of day. Ease your family into a healthier eating pattern before the school year begins. You might try swapping out the ice cream, for example, with a healthier treat like a fruit Popsicle. You can also plan regular mealtimes in lieu of a relaxed schedule. Anticipate times when it’s easy to make an unhealthy choice, like during the before-school rush or after school when your child comes home hungry. Healthy eating will help your student be more alert, with the ability to perform better at school.
5. Visit your child’s school
Contact the school to see if you and your child might be able to visit before school is in session, as this can help relieve some anxiety about the transition. Familiarize yourselves with the school building (if it’s a new one), the classrooms, gym, and cafeteria. This is also a great way to get a bit of face time with a new teacher (and/or principal) and to map out any confusing routes if your student moves between classes.
Try the above tips while savoring the last moments of summer, whether that means going on family trips or hanging out at home with neighbors. As the season ends, don’t forget to prioritize staying active and spending time together before your child goes back to school.
More posts by Lisa Low
Learning vocabulary is a milestone of reading and writing skills, as well as something kids do daily—sometimes without noticing. Whether your child needs to learn a specific set of vocabulary words or you’re looking to simply expand his vocabulary, here are ways to help.
1. Post words everywhere
In addition to—or instead of—flash cards that your child can keep in her back pocket and whip out during any downtime, try posting the words where your child will see them most often. This could be above her dresser, on the bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator, in the notebook she carries around, on a bookmark, etc. Increasing the amount of interactions your child has with the words will help her memorize and comprehend them easier.
2. Learn word groups
The danger of drills and simple repetitions is that words are isolated from the context in which they function (i.e., phrases and sentences), which makes it more difficult for kids to remember them. Encourage your child to learn the words in groups that go together. For example, instead of crowd, think crowd of people—or, instead of data, think most accurate data. When studying a specific word, have your child list as many associations and connections as he can with the word, including drawing pictures of the word’s meaning.
3. Study context
Similar to word groups, understanding context is an important strategy for your child to study vocab more effectively. Have her consider the word in a sentence. What words often appear with or near it? Consider the context of the sentence also (formal? casual?). Can the word be used in multiple contexts or is it very particular? If you and your child are making flash cards, jot down a sentence from a book, an article, or another text with the word in it instead of just listing the definition of the word. To go a step further, have your child make up a new sentence with the word that has personal connections to her own life.
4. Use the words in daily life
Encourage your child to use the words in his day-to-day routine. You can choose one word, or a few words, per day or week. This might feel stilted at first, but it can be fun! Have your child pledge to use the word aloud or while writing, whether for homework or in his personal life (i.e., in a letter or an e-mail to a friend). If you choose to join the activity, you can model how you’d use the word, which will give him double the practice.
If widening your child’s vocabulary with no specific word list is the goal, prioritize reading. It’s one of the best ways to increase vocabulary while also improving your child’s comprehension skills and expanding her world view. Encourage your child to read books that are just a bit challenging for her; there should be just enough new words for her to learn, but not too many that reading becomes laborious and context clues are too difficult. In addition to independent reading, set aside time to read with your child. This is a great opportunity to tackle higher-level reading material—you can take turns reading aloud, or you can read aloud yourself.
6. Listen to audiobooks and podcasts
Listening is an excellent way for students to engage with material that they might not otherwise. Choose education-oriented or fun podcasts that you can listen to together or alone, preferably ones that speak to your child’s interests. Try videos as well; there are many videos that might address topical vocab words or that your child can put them into a song and dance routine
For years, flash cards have been touted as the way to learn vocab. This year, see how you might use them differently or even go without them. If your child has a study buddy or tutor, try incorporating some of these strategies in activities they already do.
More posts by Lisa Low
Taking a standardized test is an entirely different beast from the regular day in and day out of your child’s school day. It can feel intimidating to some students, causing worry and anxiety. However, the great thing about standardized testing is how predictable it is! Your child can easily learn what to expect. The following concepts touch on how to explain standardized testing to your young student.
1. Question formats
The types of questions on standardized tests are fairly reliable and usually include multiple-choice, true-or-false, and short-answer questions, and sometimes, longer essays. Depending on the test, you’ll be able to familiarize yourself with it first by asking your child’s teacher about its details. Talk your child through different types of questions, especially ones he hasn’t experienced before on quizzes or tests in his regular schoolwork. Tell your child to read the directions and questions carefully, identifying keywords that will tell him what to look for in an answer or a reading passage. Students should also read all the answer choices before choosing what they believe is the correct one, in case there’s an answer choice later in the list that ends up working slightly better.
2. Time limits
Discuss with your child how timing works for standardized tests; they often are timed by subject and/or section. While the teacher or proctor will more than likely keep time on the blackboard (or if the test is electronic, there will likely be a timekeeper on the computer), students will have to understand how to pace themselves. Talk to your child about how to use her time effectively and wisely, perhaps by answering the easier questions first and coming back to the harder ones later. This will prevent her from wasting a chunk of time on a tougher question that she could be using answering simpler ones. Your child can always go back later to questions that she skipped and make an educated guess if needed. If the test has essay questions, talk with your child about planning her writing in the form of bullet points or a quick outline before beginning to actually write the essay.
3. Changes in schedule
You should receive information from your child’s teacher or principal about the change in schedule for the testing week(s). Discuss this with your child so he knows what to expect. You might also want to figure out whether your child will have any homework due on top of this (it will likely be a light load, but are there any reading assignments or long-term projects your child should still be working on?). Make sure your child gets a good night’s sleep the night before and eats a healthy breakfast the morning of the test.
4. Test prep
The standardized test is likely to align with your child’s regular curriculum somewhat, but not completely. If the test is district-wide, ask your child’s teacher how students will be prepared for the test, or ask for test prep ideas that your child can work through at home. Decide what will make you and your child feel comfortable and prepared for the test. Moreover, some standardized-test companies provide practice tests, which are great resources to help your child become familiar with how the test-taking experience will actually feel.
5. Understanding results
Test results can often seem mysterious and difficult to decode. The positive is they often don’t have any impact on your child’s subject grades. Your child’s teacher or principal can help you interpret your child’s scores, as well as what you can take away from them (perhaps the score report will indicate your child’s strengths and weaknesses, for instance). Discuss with your child the point system and what the percentiles mean, as well.
Standardized testing doesn’t have to be scary for you or your child. Familiarize yourself with the test format itself and ask around if you have questions, consulting with teachers and fellow parents. All of this will help your child get used to this system early on, before encountering it several more times in her school career.
More posts by Lisa Low
Kinesthetic learners typically learn best by using their bodies to help them take in information. You may have noticed that your child has an aptitude for physical activities, often fidgets, and/or likes to act things out—thankfully, such activities can also be translated into study habits and strategies. Here are some ways you can help your kinesthetic learner make the most of this learning style.
See where movement can be included in class settings
Movement is becoming more and more a part of the classroom, but there are still times, of course, when your child will be expected to sit and work quietly. Speak with the teacher to see if your child can possibly be seated somewhere where he can stretch out, swing his legs, or even pace at his desk—as long as he’s not disrupting the learning environment. Let your child know that it’s OK to tap his pencil or his foot—again, as long as he is not distracting others. The teacher may also be able to accommodate your child with objects he could use to tap into his sense of touch, such as squeezing a stress ball or feeling a strip of Velcro under his desk. A cut-up pool noodle can also be great for the feet.
Use objects and space
Objects can be great for learning specific concepts as well, as they can help your kinesthetic learner better understand an idea or a skill. Students can tie these objects and concepts to a physical movement; for example, gently tossing a ball between the hands while reviewing an idea can help your student access and reaccess the information, as she can later remember “the idea I reviewed while tossing the ball back and forth.” Have your child use space as well—consider role-playing to act out stories and information. Keep in mind that while you’ll want to encourage the movements of your child’s body, you’ll want to limit too many visual and auditory distractions.
Write and draw
Pen and paper may seem more conducive to visual and auditory learners, but these tools are also great for kinesthetic learners. The simple movement of the hands allows kinesthetic learners to use their bodies and retain information in a deeper way. Have your child make flashcards or draw out ideas, whether in pictures or diagrams. Mapping, for example, how characters are related in a book can be a great way for students to better understand the novel’s events and character actions. Mapping is a critical-thinking strategy that can strengthen your child’s ability to make connections.
Have your youngster take scheduled breaks during homework time. These breaks can be physical, like stretching, dancing, singing, or playing a clapping game; talking with a family member or watching a (short) fun video also works. Use space in this instance as well; if possible, have her play or walk outside. Indoors, she could move to a different place in your house, or change from sitting to standing, and vice versa. As little as five to ten minutes can make a big difference in increased attention and concentration.
Be sure to communicate with your child’s teacher about what’s working and not working for him at school. You may be able to use some of the same strategies at home that will make the learning environments more consistent, and both of you will likely have insights for each other that can help your kinesthetic learner succeed.
More posts by Lisa Low
Around age six, my daughter began to show interest in the upright piano pushed against a wall in our living room. Whenever I would sit down to play, she’d come stand by my side and listen. “Do another one, Mommy,” she’d say. “I like it when you play.”
Certain the attraction wasn’t my (very slim) musical talents, I made a mental leap: time for piano lessons! I signed her up at a local studio and thus began her weekly lessons—and our weekly battles.
“Have you practiced?” I would ask.
“I don’t want to,” she would answer.
“Come on, just 15 minutes,” I would coax. “You have a lesson tomorrow.”
Sometimes she would oblige without a fuss. More often, she’d go into warrior mode…bringing out the warrior in me.
“Becky, sit down and practice right now,” I’d say in my firm Mommy voice.
“No!” she’d respond.
Her face would tighten. Our voices would escalate. Then each of us would persist until one of us wore the other down.
About halfway through Becky’s second year of lessons she gave me a chilling wake-up call. There I was, by the piano, barking, “I said now!,” when she covered her ears and said, “Mommy, I can’t hear you. My ears hurt.”
As I stared at my little girl trying to block out the noise emanating from her mother’s mouth, I finally grasped the obvious: I was being absurd. My child had no interest in piano lessons. None. Why was I compelling her to do this?
Upon (overdue) reflection, I realized that I’d been operating from the well-intended but frail assumption that learning a musical instrument would enrich her life, just as it had enriched mine. I also assumed that she would enjoy practicing once she developed a habit. Like mother, like daughter, right?
Wrong. She’d been telling me as much for almost two years. But trained on my vision of all the wonderful benefits that would accrue as she gradually achieved mastery of the keyboard, I hadn’t heard her.
This was not one of my prouder parenting moments, but it taught me a valuable lesson. No matter what I might think was “good” for my daughter by way of life-enhancing activities, it was one thing to offer her an opportunity; it was another to impose it.
Acknowledging that your child is not interested in the same things you are doesn’t always come easy. If you starred on the baseball diamond and have fond memories of the dugout antics, it’s hard to swallow that your son hates swinging a bat. If you were the kind of kid who could lose whole afternoons curled up with a good book, it can seem incomprehensible that your daughter finds reading b-o-r-i-n-g. We assume that if we once reaped rewards from a certain activity, they will, too. Even as they balk, we cling to our memories of the benefits that come with persistence and determination (including, but not limited to, enhanced musicality, team camaraderie, good grades), so if only they will hang in there a bit longer…
Yes, our intentions are good. But forcing our kids to stick with something they don’t enjoy can have consequences. A once-agreeable child may turn balky or resentful. A child already inclined to proclaim, “I’m the boss of me,” may turn downright combative. And children of any temperament may lose their enthusiasm for sharing their ideas and interests if they feel their parents aren’t listening.
In the wake of my own piano battles, I have little patience for the parents who turn up the noise and pressure to turn out prodigies. Instead, I favor a simpler approach: listen to your kids. They will tell you what they do—and don’t—want to do, if only you’ll listen.
In my case, my daughter decided in middle school that she wanted guitar lessons. That lasted a nanosecond. Come high school, she announced that she’d signed up for a sport my husband and I knew nothing about: crew. When we learned what went into the grueling training, (“The only excuse for missing a practice is if there’s a death in the family!” the coaches announced at their one and only meeting with parents), my husband and I murmured to each other, “Becky won’t make it through the first season.”
Wrong. She rowed for four seasons and walked away with a bunch of national medals.
Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents