When Kids Refuse to Learn

We spent an enjoyable Mother’s Day up in Door County (yep, that’s where we used to live, but we still like to go there on vacation.) We had lunch at Al Johnson’s restaurant, where I go to get in touch with my Swedish heritage. We also played mini-golf at Pirates Cove, which my son always enjoys.

While we were there, I couldn’t help but notice a family several holes behind us. What caught my eye was the way the mother was teaching her youngest son, a boy of about five, how to play. She would grab him like a rag doll and jerk him into the proper position at each hole, then reach around him to hold his arms and direct his shots.

He looked really annoyed, and who could blame him? I’m sure his mom meant well, but I don’t think her efforts were having the desired effect. Whenever she took her own turn, however, the boy skipped around with his putter, teased his brother and watched his dad. His face only turned gloomy when he took another turn with his mother glued to him like a backpack.

Seeing her misguided efforts got me thinking about all the ways we try to teach our children. We may instruct verbally, we may demonstrate, or (rarely, I hope) we may grab their little bodies and lead them in doing the activity. While the latter is often resented, sometimes the first two options don’t work very well either. After all, when you have to keep telling kids the same thing over and over, you clearly haven’t taught them by talking to them. And demonstrating doesn’t always work either. I demonstrated how to do dishes so many times to my kids yet often found greasy plates in the dish rack the next day. (I imagine my kids work much harder at getting dishes clean now that it’s their dishes they’re washing!)

The fact is that kids are often not motivated to learn the things we want them to learn. This can result in frustration on their part and ours. Clearly the mother at Pirates Cove cut to the chase by physically manipulating her son into what she considered the proper golfing stance. Perhaps she’d already tried telling him what to do and demonstrating what to do and it didn’t work, so in frustration she turned him into a puppet.

Ultimately we have to ask whether it’s worth humiliating a child to teach him something. Would it have been the end of the world if he hadn’t played properly? Perhaps a few times of losing to the rest of the family because of his lack of skills would eventually motivate him to learn to play better all on his own. Or maybe he doesn’t really care that much about mini-golf; if he’s not a competitive child, he may never care to learn the proper way to play. If that’s the case, I hope his mother comes to accept that this would not be the end of the world. But I doubt it; she looked pretty serious about her mini-golfing to me.

So, how do you react when your child refuses to learn something you’re teaching them? Are some of your children more feisty learners than others? If so, what techniques do you use to teach them?

The Downsizing Chronicles: Pitching What Won’t Fit

Our new home has just over 1,000 square feet upstairs plus a basement. Our last rental home had over 2,000 square feet upstairs plus a basement. You see the problem here.

I keep thinking it’s like trying to fit a size 12 foot in a size 9 shoe. Despite all the purging we did over the last two moves, we have to get rid of more stuff in order to fit four people and their stuff in this house.

I decided not to let anything in the house that isn’t going to stay here. So you can imagine what the garage looks like.

Someone suggested that had I spent more time over the last 30 years getting rid of stuff instead of keeping it, I would be better off.

I thought about that for a while. At first, it sounded right. But then I realized that while I did go through things at times, I was never forced to do a major purge because we lived in a big house that allowed me to store things instead of getting rid of them. Also (and most importantly), I was so busy raising and homeschooling four kids that I never had time to do a major purge.

And that’s ok, because I spent the time I could have spent going through stuff doing more important things, like explaining algebra, playing games, and reading to my kids. Now that they’re grown, I have more time to go through everything. So while going through all this stuff now isn’t a lot of fun, I’m glad I had the time with my kids when they were home.

So if you have lots of kids and lots of clutter, take heart. Someday you can take care of the clutter. But the time to take care of the kids is now.

Trust Your Child, Trust Yourself

Have you ever noticed how many experts there are in the world?

Even an hour spent on the Internet makes it clear that experts are everywhere: some are experts by virtue of their life experiences or training (I value the first more than the second; how about you?) and others are self-proclaimed experts. After all, it seems like nearly everyone has a blog these days where they share their “expert” advice.

Then there are the women’s magazines, which proliferate around checkout counters across the land, with blaring headlines declaring “Your Body: Advice from the Experts!”, “How the iPad Can Release the Genius Inside Your Child” and “50 Ways to Please Your Man!”

Everywhere we go, it seems we’re surrounded by experts. Their proclamations can make us feel unprepared and diminish our confidence, particularly when it comes to parenting our children. Continue reading

Children and Television Viewing

How do you feel about letting your children watch television?

I have to admit, my feelings have changed over the years. When I was a young parent, I only let my kids watch “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers.” The rest of the time they played: in their rooms, in the living room, in the yard and at the park. VCRs were still new and expensive; we rented one once in a while so that we could watch a movie, and we often rented an old Disney movie for the kids.  But that was the limit of our children’s television viewing. We didn’t even buy a color television until 1989; even then we bought a tiny one, hoping its size would keep the kids from becoming addicted.

Then we had more kids. I found that homeschooling the older kids was a lot easier if the little ones had a video to watch. Yes, it was on the tiny television, but it kept them glued in one spot for a while so that I didn’t have to worry too much about someone climbing up the kitchen blinds while we worked on long division in the living room. The rest of the time, however, I limited how much television the kids could watch.

By the time we got a bigger television, Continue reading

Can You Motivate Your Child To Achieve Greatness?

Can you motivate your child to achieve greatness?

Amy Chua thinks you can and you must, and her methods are drawing a lot of attention. An excerpt from her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, recently appeared in the online version of the Wall Street Journal. It’s been the site’s #1 most visited page for weeks, and already has over 7,500 comments (most articles there get a few hundred comments at most). It’s also sparked debate among parents all over the country. (Note: Ms. Chua has accused the Wall Street Journal of taking the most shocking parts of her book out of context, but read on and see what you think.)

Ms. Chua’s daughters are high achievers; one even played piano at Carnegie Hall. Ms. Chua credits their achievements in part to not letting them go on sleepovers, be in school plays, have play dates, watch television or use computers. She required that both girls learn to play the piano and violin (no other instruments allowed). Here’s her description of one daughter’s attempts to learn to play piano with both hands:

Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, “I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?” I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

“Get back to the piano now,” I ordered.

“You can’t make me.”

“Oh yes, I can.”

The girl did end up mastering the technique, and according to her mother, was thrilled about it. But was it her achievement, or her mother’s?

I found this statement by Ms. Chua particularly disturbing:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.

Nothing is fun until you’re good at it? I remember the crooked little quilts my girls made when they were young. They loved making them, and I didn’t force them to do so. Now they can crank out lovely quilts much faster than I can. But the point is, they had fun making crooked quilts and now they have fun making straight ones, and it was their idea to make quilts in the first place. I merely taught them the basics and helped them when they asked for it.

Recently I read The Element: How Finding your Passion Changes Everything, by Sir Ken Robinson. This noted creativity expert studies very successful creative people. In his book, he cites the experiences of many creative types who didn’t know what they were good at until they heard or saw something that struck a chord within them.

For instance, Robinson interviewed drummer Mick Fleetwood of the band Fleetwood Mac, who, as a young boy, struggled in school but loved to tap on things. What Fleetwood called “this tapping business” really came to life when he went to a live musical performance for the first time and realized that he wanted to be in that kind of environment:

“One day, I walked out of school and I sat under a large tree in the grounds. I’m not religious, but with tears pouring down my face, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t be in this place anymore. I wanted to be in London and play in a jazz club. It was totally naïve and ridiculous, but I made a firm commitment to myself that I was going to be a drummer.”

What came next was a series of “breaks” that might never have occurred if Mick had stayed in school.

Mick’s parents understood that school was not a place for someone with Mick’s kind of intelligence. At sixteen, he approached them about leaving school, and rather than insisting that he press on until graduation, they put him on a train to London with a drum kit and allowed him to pursue his inspiration.

Note that Fleetwood’s parents didn’t force him to play the drums, nor did they dissuade him from following his dream in order to follow one of theirs. Robinson’s book is full of stories of people who successfully followed their own interests, or passions as Robinson calls them. Not one of them achieved greatness by following their parents’ passions. In fact, in most cases the parents, if mentioned at all, either encouraged their children to find their own passions, or at the very least did not get in their way.

So who do you think is on the right track, Chua or Robinson? I’m with Robinson. I’ve watched my own kids pursue and master subjects that I had nothing to do with, or that I’m weak in. I think we help our kids achieve greatness by removing obstacles and giving help when asked.  I don’t believe in forcing kids to study specific instruments, or threatening to take away their belongings if they don’t practice.

I love watching my children enjoy becoming good at something they love. Why turn it into something negative?