The dangers of helping too much


Dear Kerry,

My niece just finished 7th grade. She’s visiting us and our two children, 11 and 9. She told us about the science project in her class and said many of the kids didn’t do their own work. Instead their parents designed their projects, did the writing and the displays. Then they got the best grades. She was mad, sad and discouraged. Our kids were confused. I was upset that her teacher didn’t intervene, wondering if this is what we have to expect in middle school, and extra worried because our 11-year-old wondered if it was better after all to get parents involved if that’s what everyone is doing. I wasn’t sure how to talk to her about it.

KH, Ann Arbor

Dear KH,

It is certainly discouraging when kids come up against dishonesty, especially when the cheaters seem to get away with it, or even get rewarded. I think most parents who “help” their children too much mean well, but just don’t realize the impact of what they’re doing.

The impact is multiple, affecting the child concerned, the parents, the teacher and the other children. It’s also negative, as you have described so well, since your niece was upset and your children were confused. Situations like this challenge the values you have taught and push families to confront “what things are like out in the big world.” That may be one of the worst effects – the disillusioned or cynical feeling that there is nothing to do and that the big world is a bad place is not what you want your children to feel.

We all want children to garner knowledge at school, but there are other lessons that are equally significant. Schoolchildren learn how to learn, which will be useful for the rest of their lives. Maybe the most important experience is the satisfaction of mastery – when you achieve a new skill or complete a difficult task it feels great! It is so important for parents and teachers to reinforce the pleasure of the process, encouraging the effort, and not just praising the product. That pleasure is going to be the internal motivation for learning and work later in school and life, for developing the emotional muscle to stick to a task.

When someone else does the work, it deprives a child of that keen satisfaction, the chance to register that good feeling inside and experience legitimate pride. Then they may turn to external rewards and instant gratifications. Kids who don’t go through the sweat and effort of a long-term project or the acquisition of a skill, like becoming a good batter, are at risk for feeling insecure inside or worrying that they are fooling people.

Parents who do work for their kids may feel they are helping them do well, or may be responding to their child’s distress at how hard a project seems. It’s much more difficult and time-consuming to keep your child company as she struggles to make a plan, gather materials, do the research, and translate that into an essay or a graphic display. Your child may need a tactful boost or suggestion occasionally, or even just a special snack to keep her going, but don’t offer too much help or too much sympathy. Remember the frustration of waiting for them to get their own shoes on, when it was so much faster to just do it yourself? But if parents don’t let their children grapple with putting on their own shoes or learning work planning, they cripple them for later on. It’s an awful feeling for a parent to look at a teenager without needed life and school skills and feel that you have somehow failed to equip your child.

Teachers have the amazing skill to know each child in their class. They can be most effective when they get an accurate picture of strengths and weaknesses. That only happens when children are doing their own work, revealing how much they have learned and where their skills need attention. Families and society don’t get full value from teachers’ expertise if we don’t give them the fullest possible information about each child. Let children do their own work and then teachers can do their own job to the max.

Lastly, children often take the lead from other kids, especially as they enter the teen years. They need lots of grownup modeling and support for creating a classroom and peer culture that values responsibility and gives space for the sincere admiration kids can feel for peers who do interesting work.

Everyone is responsible for creating a big world out there that asks a lot of each person and rewards us with authentic satisfaction in a job well done. You can talk to your kids about these values. Use the summer as a chance to notice and comment on their satisfaction when they work hard or learn something new. “I am so happy to see how good you feel harvesting the cucumbers from your garden. It was hard to imagine back when we first dug the ground together. That sure is satisfying!”

This entry was posted in cheating, habits, mastery, parent-child relationship, school issues, schoolkids, teenagers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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