Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
I’ve got a question I’m hoping you can help me with. I’ve got a very clever 11-year-old who I recently learned is not doing his homework. Until now I’d considered the point of sixth grade homework to be learning how to do homework to prepare for high school. I figured he probably doesn’t need to do the homework to master the skills, but at some point in the near future I realize he will, so homework seems to be about getting the study habits solid. As such, I’ve basically left it up to him.
I’ve always asked him if he was doing it, if he needed help, etc., and taken him at his word when he said it was sorted. Now that I know he isn’t doing it (and lying about it being done), what should I do? Stand over him making sure the busy work is done? My goal is to have a kid who takes responsibility and is capable of studying when it does become hard. And I want to set up a smart kid who won’t always be smart enough to not to study for success. How should I go about that?
—Also Didn’t Do My Homework
You say you also didn’t do your homework. How did that go for you? You say, in the future, he’ll need to do the homework to master the skills. How did you learn that lesson?
My guess is it was via the best teacher known to humankind: the natural consequences of your actions. You likely failed at something and realized that your previous m.o. would no longer suffice.
I’m not saying you can’t make him do his homework. You could certainly try praise, cajoling, rewards, punishments, whatever. That will require a lot of effort on your part and likely generate significant stress for both you and your son.
Or you can let him coast along until he hits a roadblock. Then he’ll have to figure out on his own how to get around it.
If this second route is your choice, let him know. Tell him that even if he’s mastering the material with minimal effort right now, there will come a time when that will no longer be the case; that, if he chooses not to develop study habits now, it will cause problems for him later; and that you’re going to let him learn this lesson the hard way. You decline the position of homework police.
Either way, I’d suggest you talk with him about honesty. Why didn’t he want to tell you? What did his little voice tell him when he lied about doing his homework? How did fibbing make him feel in his body? Did it affect how he thought about himself? Let him know he can always tell you the truth. Give him the language: “I’m afraid to tell you this because I think you’ll be mad, but _______________.” And then don’t show anger when he shares things with you.
Frankly, he’s going to learn life lessons with or without you. All you have to think about is the role you want to play is his life, and let the chips fall where they may.
—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)
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Is first grade a normal age for girls to start having confidence issues? I was just reading over my daughter’s end-of-year “report card” from last year, and her teacher just gushed about her being helpful, an outgoing leader in class, and that she had so many friends. This year, she’s much more quiet and not as confident with her friends—there seems to be a lot of changing of “friend groups” at recess that she’s not navigating well. Instead of bringing home artwork proudly, she doesn’t think it’s very good, and so on.
She’s advanced academically, but seems to be struggling socially for the first time (she never had this problem in pre-k or Kinder and makes friends easily in the neighborhood, plays seamlessly with her non-school friends). One thing I’ve noticed is that she has traditionally had a boy “best friend” in class, but now the groups seem to have split on gender lines. Do things get more socially complex this quickly at this age, or might it just be specific the class? It breaks my heart to see her feeling sad when she used to love school.
—Needing a Boost
Dear Needing a Boost,
I’m sorry to hear your daughter is going through some challenging social changes. Each situation and each child is different, but transitions like the one you describe are very common at this age. I’ve witnessed this happen countless times, as kids lose and then regain their footing with new friends. And you’re right that around this age, as kids of different gender identities grow and mature, they often develop different interests, and friendships can change. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen at the same time for all kids, and your daughter is likely experiencing some confusion as to why her best friend now seems to prefer playing with boys. It’s not surprising that her confidence has taken a bit of hit as she works to make sense of the changing dynamics between them.
It’s a good sign that this shift in her friendship doesn’t appear to be impacting her studies or relationships with kids outside of school. The best you can do for her in this moment is to provide love and support. It sounds like your daughter has a very solid foundation; I doubt she has lost all her confidence and may just need reminders of what an incredible person she is. You can do this through a technique called extreme affirmation. Extreme affirmation is an intervention mental health professionals and educators use to boost and reinforce confidence in folks who are experiencing a deficit in that area. For example, when she brings her art home, you may want to try having a slightly over the top reaction. Kids really eat this kind of attention up. It’s worked wonders for me as an educator and may be one way to help her regain her confidence as she finds her way again with friends at school.
—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)
How much oversight should I have of my high schooler’s schoolwork? We tend to be very hands-off, and we expect our kids to handle their own stuff (although we are available to support if needed), but some parents I know seem really involved in their kids’ day-to-day experiences. What’s the right balance here?
Dear Keeping Tabs,
Ideally high school students manage their schoolwork independently as much as possible. This is developmentally appropriate for adolescents, who desire increasing independence and autonomy. Taking responsibility for schoolwork also prepares them for adulthood. Of course, what’s possible for one student is not necessarily possible for another—some of your friends’ teens may need additional support in order to be successful. However, if your kids are thriving with the system you have in place now, then you need not worry about being more involved. In fact, I think you should be proud of them!
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
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