By Rebecca Guez
In 4th grade, I failed my first test. It was a math test, and I can still remember sitting in the back of the classroom, crying to my teacher, my nose dripping into my turtleneck because I took the failed grade so personally. It wasn’t just about failing the test itself, in my mind I was embarrassed for being a failure.
Fast forward to my competitive high school, where I would work really hard, earning only average grades, and again I took that really personally. I was intimidated by my intelligent peers, and grew discouraged so I stopped putting in my full effort. When I didn’t do well, this laissez-faire attitude soothed me, whispering, “you didn’t really try.”
Looking back at that 4th grader turned high school student, I recognize that I had huge insecurities about asking questions and making mistakes, fears of not being perfect, and beliefs that if I tried my best and didn’t succeed, I might as well not try at all. When asked how school was, or what I was learning, I would say “I don’t know” or “nothing”. I was a closed book, and definitely didn’t want to share my failures. I remember always being asked how my day was, but not necessarily how I felt. I rarely felt accomplished, fulfilled, or proud of myself and my schoolwork, but the worst part of all; I kept that bottled up inside.
Schoolwork is so much more than work taken home from school; the way that your child handles their schoolwork can be the clearest reflection of their feelings, what they are going through, and what they believe about themselves. It doesn’t feel good to fail, be lazy, or unproductive, and children aren’t trying to give us a hard time. Everyone wants to feel confident, stimulated, productive, and successful.
If your child is having difficulty with their schoolwork or doesn’t seem to be applying themselves, there is always something deeper going on, and most importantly, despite how it may feel, they are not doing it to hurt you.
There are dozens of challenges that come up around schoolwork, making it something parents dread just as much as their children. Children procrastinate, forget about homework until it's bedtime, don’t apply themselves, don’t complete their work, want their parents or a tutor to do it for them, say it is too hard, watch TV or use technology instead of doing their homework, lie and say they don’t have any, or lie and say they did it already, forget about it, or cry because they don’t understand. By the end of our already long day, we are tired, our patience is thin, and the thought of homework, projects and tests can be daunting. Why can’t our kids just do what they have to do? And why do teachers have to give them so much?
As a parent, think back to what kind of student you were, and why? Who were you trying to impress? How did you feel during those years? What do you wish a parent or a teacher would have asked you, or said, or did to lighten the load? Not necessarily the work itself, but all of the feelings you had at that time.
If we have all of these feelings around homework, imagine how our kids feel. When a child of any age comes home from school, we don’t know what kind of day they’re walking in the door from. The same way a stressful or emotionally draining day leaves us wanting to put our feet up, or zone out; our children might feel that way too. It doesn’t change the fact that they still need to do their homework, but approaching our children without judgment and with empathy, and using homework to help you have an insight into how they are doing, even when they aren’t able to express it themselves, can go a long way towards creating a safe and loving environment for them to regroup and tackle the work they bring home.
More importantly than making sure our children do their work is finding out what is keeping them from getting their work done.
Once we help them clear away these bad feelings and beliefs, then they will do their schoolwork on their own. The more clearly as a parent that you can identify your children’s feelings, needs and struggles, and the more attention and love is given to that emotional side, then even the worst experiences with homework can change.
I was clearly a dramatic 4th grader, but I did give a transparent insight into my feelings and beliefs about myself and life. Working with me to understand that “failing” is as important as succeeding and that my grades don't define who I was may have changed my high school experience. My grades may not have been different, but I might have had a different view of myself as a student and as a person. Maybe I could have compared myself less or been confident enough to ask questions or talk about what I had trouble with. As parents, we want to support our children and teenagers to grow into strong, self-confident, and secure people who know they are loved and safe.
Get curious with your kids and ask questions. Share your own struggles, offer solutions, and really listen to them. Listen to the words they are saying and the ones they might be leaving out.
In every family, we can truly transform schoolwork from being a source of intense disconnection to a source of connection for parents and their children. As parents, the ball is in our court how we show up for our kids in this time that may be challenging for us, but surely is even more challenging for them. Waiting for your children to decide to do better in school can be disheartening and discouraging. Let’s redefine success in schoolwork into making sure your child’s emotional needs are met. This will lead to deeper connection with them, happier, confident, encouraged and nurtured children, and most likely improved schoolwork as well.
Rebecca doing homework with her 6 year old daughter.