After a recent talk in South Florida, women came up to me in droves asking, "How much should I help my children with their schoolwork?"
That not one man asked the question speaks loudly to the state of parenting in postmodern America. Men don't ask the question because they know they are not trusted to do BIG parenting stuff like ensure their kids' academic success.
My answer: "I can't quantify that for you, but I do know that the more you help your child with his or her schoolwork, the more you will be called upon by said child to help. A child's belief that he can't do something is rarely fact-based; it's usually instilled by well-meaning people, as in, his parents."
Before drilling deeper into this ubiquitous issue, a few facts are in order:
FACT: Children do not know what they need. They only know what they want. When a child says he "needs" something, it's all but certain that he does not NEED the something in question; he only WANTS it. That definitely applies to a child saying he needs help with schoolwork.
FACT: Children have a low tolerance for frustration. "I can't!" is their default response to difficulty of any sort.
FACT: Children do not know what they are capable of. They must be forced to push the limitations they impose on their abilities.
FACT: Children are soap-opera factories. They are prone to exaggerating the significance of anything they experience. Making mountains out of molehills is a child's nature.
When my daughter Amy entered high school, she began taking algebra. Right off the bat, she had difficulty understanding the equations and asked me for help. For the first two weeks of her freshman year, I helped her sort out x, y and n. Then I realized she was becoming dangerously dependent on me, and so, before things went any further downhill, I told her I was done helping her.
"I've gotten you off to a good start, Amos," I said. "The rest is up to you."
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"One more night, Daddy? Please?"
"Nope. I'm out of the algebra business as of five minutes ago."
She wanted to negotiate. I wouldn't. Before long, she was weeping and wailing and accusing me of wanting her to fail. Then she begged. I stood firm, so she wept and wailed some more. Then she wouldn't talk to me (a blessing of sorts). For three days this went on. Finally, she gave up. Her final salvo was, "Don't be surprised if I get an F in algebra!"
She got an A in algebra. I honestly do not think she would have been able to ace algebra if I had continued to "help" her.
FACT: Every time a parent helps a child who has said he "can't" and "needs" the help, the child's tolerance for academic frustration goes down a notch, all but guaranteeing that said child will (a) continue to believe he "can't" and (b) ask for help more and more often. This is the curriculum for "How to Grow an Incompetent, Academically Anxious Child 101."
Do some children need the help? (Also phrased as: Do some children need more help than others?) Yes, but the above FACTS pertain to all children. All children, therefore, need parents who will set limits on the nature of any help they give and the amount of time they will spend per day or week giving it.
Just remember: YOU need to call it quits. Your child will not.
Email family psychologist John Rosemond at firstname.lastname@example.org.