“What is my role as a parent in supporting my child’s at-home learning?” This is one of the biggest questions I’m hearing from parents.
The scenario is often a derivation of something like this: My son is having a hard time turning in his assignments. My daughter is on her device all the time, even during Zoom class. My children aren’t motivated. They aren’t engaged. They are in their room all the time. Their grades are suffering. They have stopped showing up for online school.
Parents then wisely ask the question, “Do I constantly monitor my children’s schoolwork and dictate when and how they do it, or do I make it clear that it is their responsibility and let them fail at times?” They go on to acknowledge that the intervening and micromanaging lead to power struggles and a rift in the relationship.
What’s a parent to do?
When I ask parents who they want their kids to be as learners they say they want them to be self-driven, independent, motivated learners who take responsibility and find interest in their learning. Of course that isn’t going to happen for every assignment and every student, but you get the gist.
Yet if we are highly involved in our kids’ school work by telling them how and when to do it, it is hard for them to develop the skills necessary to become that self-driven learner. Our involvement also sends them the message that we don’t trust they can do it on their own.
On the other hand, we can’t bear to see our kids fail. We fear that if we do step back our kids won’t take on any of the responsibility themselves.
There is a middle ground. It’s a gradual approach, and you have to be willing to accept a few steps back and some turbulent waters before you see results.
It’s OK to say to your kids, “I’ve noticed lately that it’s hard for you to get your school work done. ... that you don’t seem motivated ... that you are on your device and distracted a lot” ... or whatever it is in your home.
Then validate what life has been like for them. Let your children know you understand what a tough situation this is. Home alone, no friends around to make school fun, and being asked to complete school work that may not be motivating.
Tell your kids, “I don’t want to be nagging and micromanaging you anymore. It’s not fun for me, it’s not good for our relationship, and I’m sure you don’t like it either. So what are we going to do?”
Then ask them questions and help them problem solve. “What has been working for you? When do you feel the most motivated? What are the challenges? What goals or expectations do you have for yourself? What do you think will happen if you don’t do your work? Do you really want to fail this class or repeat this grade while all your friends move on? Is there a system that you can come up with that will work for you? How would you like me to be involved? Where can I support?”
Give your kids a few days to think about this and schedule a time to come back and talk. And then leave them alone. Follow through with what you said about not nagging. Your fingernails may be bitten down to the end, but do what it takes to give them their space.
If they’ve asked for your support, then by all means give it, while acknowledging that the system they come up with may not be the one you had in mind. Let them try their system for a week then come back and reevaluate. Acknowledge all the positives. This is so important. We spend too much time on what is not working. We need to flip the scale.
If the system isn’t working, go back to the drawing board. It’s OK to have limits and boundaries, especially when it comes to tech use, and it works even better if you can involve your children in creating them. You can bring their goals into this: “I know your goal was to finish all your school work by 5 p.m., but it seems like time on your device is preventing you from doing that. How do you want to solve this problem?” If they can’t come up with their own limit, it is OK to create one yourself.
Here’s why it’s important to back off: Much of your child’s behavior might be about the power struggle. From age 2 to 22 our kids are striving for increasing autonomy and independence. They need to have a sense of control over their own lives where they feel they can act upon the world and have impact on their lives. If they haven’t been given this chance they are going to fight back. So drop it from your side. Give them the space and time to rise to the occasion on their own all while handing off more and more responsibility to them in other areas of their lives (self-care, contributions in the home or community, etc.).
When you back off you are giving your kids ownership. You are showing them you believe that they can solve their problem on their own. Your belief in them is the foundation for their belief in themselves.
Go slow. Your kids might not want to talk with you about any of this if they are used to the conversation ending up in nagging and power struggles. They may need time to trust that you aren’t going to jump down their throats about what they are doing wrong every time this subject comes up.
Will our kids fail sometimes in this process? Yes. And they will learn how to pick themselves back up. I know the stakes seem high when it comes to school and grades. And our job as parents is to teach our kids while they are still in our homes to navigate the world independently. This learning will come with some setbacks, but the results are worth it. Be patient, set up agreed-upon boundaries at first, then gradually let go.
Our kids need to know we believe in them. They need to know they are capable. It is our job to give them these opportunities, so have faith that while things may get messy in this process you are teaching your kids invaluable skills and fostering an inner strength that will last a lifetime.