Me and my kiddo

Me and my kiddo

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Mommy, Teacher... Mixed Roles

An email from a friend inspired me to tackle this question because I've had similar issues.  Fundamentally, parents are their kids' teachers in a vast number of ways.  However, when it comes to academics, there is a different role of teacher that is distinct.  Certainly, many parents homeschool and take on that role of curriculum organizer, lecturer, teacher, homework helper, or any combination of the four.  I think the key is recognizing that this is a distinctly different role and must be approached that way to be effectively addressed.  I had a ball playing with letters and colors and shapes with my toddler and he was enchanted too.  He also loves some fine motor work, but writing is not his passion.  I can play lots of games with writing, but that doesn't change that he doesn't love it and that it also remains a vital skill that needs to be practiced over time.  So, when a parent takes on the job of education in a more complete, formal way, it's not like the toddler games where if the child isn't interested in "Q" you can skip that letter.  The more formal education requires an adult using their greater context to impart  fundamental knowledge to a child.  The child does not have the context to know what is most important to their success and thus can not be expected to be completely self-motivated.  That is not to say that we don't do the best we can to attach academic material to their values, but there will be times when a kid doesn't fully get the importance of a lesson until a later time.  That presents a key challenge for any teacher, but especially a parent who has a vast roll of emotional, independence nurturer as well.  A school teacher can be clear that it is their job to teach a certain material and a child can relate to them in that manner without really liking them.  If a parent succeeds in teaching arithmetic at the price of a trusting, positive relationship, that's a big problem.  As I've contemplated this issue, I've come up with three suggestions.

1. Decide on the Importance
Is being your child's academic teacher worth the challenges?  Where does the roll rank in your values considering your current: location (local schools),  parent-child relationship, time availability, and career goals?  Over the summer, I did "Mommy School" and found that my son gradually resisted more and more.  As long as I changed things, he was happy.  But, any kind of consistent curriculum that would cover a subject was resisted even if the individual lessons delighted him.  Now, this was a summer, playful time and I could just swing with it.  If he didn't want to do a particular conceptual building block, say in Dreambox math, he didn't have to.  It wasn't my job to construct a hierarchy of knowledge without holes.  I was just supplementing with quality information.  That doesn't work for creating a curriculum though.  One need only look at social studies curricula with lots of scattered lessons that do not integrate to a whole and are impossible for even the most enthusiastic student to retain.  There's nothing wrong with a little summer study of Madagascar, but if my son's entire knowledge of geography was little bits of different countries that happen to interest him over a ten year period, I couldn't expect him to retain even those bits and certainly not to gain any historical understanding.

2. Make a Deal
If you decide that it is in your best interest to take on the teacher roll, make a deal with your kiddo.  It is amazing how creative kids can be when presented with an issue.  Asking them, "What will we do on days when we don't feel like studying writing?" can result in a slew of intriguing ideas!  The most general way I've found of tying education to kids' values is to link it to their thirst for independence.  Once we get past that toddler drive to learn some basics, older kids often need help seeing that link.  My kiddo decided he wanted to be an airplane engineer, so... when his handwriting was sloppy, we could chat about how confused another engineer would be if he left a note.  He might even misunderstand and build the wrong part!  Voila, improved efforts to write clearly.  That's more specific, but most kids have a general desire to be independent and can understand that being able to write or add up their own groceries is important to eventually MAKING THEIR OWN CHOICES.  This is a key, motivating idea at my house and I imagine it will help others too.  If you can make your deal with a solid motivation (because your kid can see that the knowledge will help them be independent), and you also get their creative suggestions for what to do when motivation lags, you're set up for a more likely success.  (I'll add the deal should be written down both for reference and clarity.  Also, it should be modifiable after the current instance.  With our bed time deals, we've modified them often together, but it's not at 9pm when he decides he wants to change things.  We talk about it the next day and modify as needed but, usually, because we developed the deal together, he decides that he doesn't want to change it.  Keeping the deals flexible keeps them relevant and effective for your needs.)

3. Recognize that It Will Always Be a Challenge
Fundamentally, it will always be a challenge for a kid who does not have an adult context to see the value of some aspects of a complete, foundational education.  While I think the best motivator is that glorious drive for independence (making their own choices), there will be gaps in their interest for a particular lesson that can't be skipped due to its requirement for later understanding.  I think expecting those challenges and planning for them can make them less distressing.  I don't think there's anything wrong with looking at deals that recognize a kid's different context and offer a motivation more closely tied to their immediate values.  For example, I can imagine a deal where after completing school on a blah day Mommy Teacher and Student Child earn a joint outing to the ice cream parlor.  Recognizing that everyone has their down days is just being honest.  Talking about the overall motivation, while helping kids over the hump makes sense to me.  I certainly do the same kind of thing myself, like finishing the mail before jumping in the hot tub :)  Of course, the challenge is making sure this doesn't turn into a reward system with everyday being a blah day so that it ends in a trip for ice cream.  I've found that bringing up those concerns in the original deal-formation-stage works beautifully.  I get the look that says my kiddo understands that I understand and we chat honestly about choices.  (Again, I recognize the difference in kids!  I know my kiddo is a major talker and loves to process like crazy.  I can imagine lots of quieter kids would rather just have brief reminders of the deal and continue on.)

So, I have been thrilled to find adults that can be my son's academic teachers and allow me to be his supportive guide.  I like keeping the rolls separate, but flexible.  As we prepare for an upcoming move, my son has said he wants to do "Mommy School" until we come back to our current location.  If I agree to that, I will certainly sit down with him and make sure we are completely clear about what that means and what I need to make that interesting to me.  He just turned seven and he can understand that I'm not interested in nagging... he learned the word "impatient" quiet early!  Now, if I'm slow or don't respond to questions, he'll tell me in his little, grown up voice, "Mommy, I'm getting impatient!"  Ah, the joys of "I" language and having a kid who really gets it!  We don't attack each other with "you" language in this house, so I know whatever solution we work out for schooling over the next year, we'll all be able to say, "I'm happy with the deal."

Learning chess... now I keep coming down in the morning to find him playing himself.  Somehow, he 's always the one who gets "the other guy" into check mate! :)


  1. Very good advice, Rachel

  2. Well said, Rachel, particularly the part about it always being a challenge. I find that I need to reassess my own efforts on a daily basis, and that making and keeping a schedule known to both (or all) parties is essential, even knowing full well that you can't schedule serendipity!

  3. Lynne: Thanks :) I agree that the re-evaluating never stops. I've enjoyed your blog insights so much that I just responded to your questions too:

  4. Good luck with whatever you decide, Rachel "Lady Baker". I am sure that if you choose to homeschool, you will find that it is another one of those grand adventures in which there are those moments that you think (to yourself): What was I thinking."

    The Engineering Geek and I decided to homeschool the Rasta-Jew (with his input, of course!) for a variety of reasons, including the fact that his Autism gave him nearly a triple curriculum in school, and he came home so exhausted that he was unable to do anything with us at all. He did very well, and I did very well, but we had those days you talked about, too. He then chose to go to high school, and now he has chosen to move with us to Ragamuffin Ranch, changing his school (a big step for my Aspie!).

    Anyway, I did find that we did a lot of changing and a lot of adjusting over those years in order to get the best out of the RJ, and to keep learning an adventure--even if some days were like climbing Everest in a blizzard!

    Have a great time with the little guy! Someday soon he will be a big guy and start planning to walk out that door, and you will be proud of what has come from all of those Everest in a blizzard days!

  5. Elisheva: Thank you so much for sharing experiences and thoughts! I'm cautious, but I'll definitely do it if that's our best choice, all things considered. He's so far ahead academically, that if I bomb horribly, I can find a nice spot for him to start after the summer and he'd still be ahead. I'm not worried about us having a ball though... we're pretty honest with each other about what's working and what's not. Although, his statements of opinion tend to make the windows rattle a bit more :)