The beginning of the school year is the perfect time for parents to establish new habits that will help their children make the most out of the school year. The new school year gives us a special opportunity to build on past successes and start anew in areas where change and improvement are called for. We have a fresh new slate on which we can create whatever we want, and if we're mindful, we can put our effort into making conscious choices.
When adults—the very successful and those who have faced setbacks—talk about why they are where they are, they point to stories about their early life. In those stories are the seeds that shaped their future. Here are some tips for being strategic about how you interact with your child as the new school year begins.
- Recognize the difference between "I can't" and "I won't" and then act, keeping your focus on making a positive impact on your child's development in the long-term.
- The distinction between "I can't" and "I won't" is important for all of us to understand. We are all guilty of saying "I can't" when we mean "I won't." "Can't" is a statement about ability. "Won't" reflects a lack of motivation and willingness to act. Most of us CAN do most things, although we may not choose to summon the energy and commitment they require. The same is true with our children. "Can't" is often an expression of frustration, or fear of failure or embarrassment.
- Gently probe "I can't" statements with a listening check. This involves repeating what your child said using her of his words—restating the child's message using a tone of voice and body language that conveys genuine interest. Make eye contact to demonstrate that you're paying attention and be aware of the energy and nonverbal message you allow to come through your eyes. Look at your child with eyes that say, "I love you and I care about what you have to say."
- Then, practice gentle, respectful probing to distinguish between "I can't"—meaning "I don't have the ability" or "I don't know how"—and "I won't"—meaning "I don't want to," "it's not what I prefer to do" or "I don't like doing it."
- In the case of "I won't," see if there are supports you can provide to increase your child's motivation or willingness to apply himself to the subject or task. Sometimes a tutor is helpful. You can also consider reward—a toy she wants, a privilege he wants, relief from chores for a day, a sleepover, or similar. Of course, you'll need to be careful not to create the expectation of rewards, as some children will make it a condition for doing the slightest little thing.
- Since kids watch you carefully, lead by example. Be sure that you say, "I can't" only when you're referring to your current inability to accomplish a task. Modeling the desired behavior will help your child understand the difference between "I can't" and "I won't."
- Don't let your fears or limitations get in the way of your child's potential accomplishments.
- As a parent, it's your job to keep your child as safe as possible, emotionally and physically, but you should also ask yourself if your fear is a real worry about your child's academic success and safety or if it's just your over-protective neurosis speaking.
- In most cases, parents can safely say yes to school sanctioned activities. Just make clear agreements with your child about what is required in order for them remain eligible to participate.
- When you're afraid, say so. Be explicit about what your fears are. "I'm afraid you'll get hurt." Or, "I'm worried that your grades will drop." Share your fears in the interest of open, loving communication, not to dissuade and discourage.
- Your child may very well fall and get hurt while playing sports, as in many other areas of life. Like adults, children learn through their experiences. If it hurts too much, they probably won't continue, but if they love it, despite the bumps and bruises they sustain, they will play. It's you who has to suck it up and let your child enjoy the experience.
- Once they're involved, talk with them about how an activity is going. Validate their perspective. Share your concerns. Listen to their response. If they still want to be involved, unless you foresee a life-threatening, life-altering situation emerging, stop complaining and worrying and cheer her on.
- Be a part of your child's experiences rather than trying to control them.
- When your child says she wants to do something that you never would have considered, take a deep breath. Stay calm and get the details. Find out why your child wants to do the activity—what interests them about it, how they got attracted to the idea, who else is involved, etc.
- Talk with school officials to get information on the activity's coordinator, safety record, etc.
- Share your legitimate concerns with your child. Listen to her responses. If she's still interested, make a deal. "Okay, you can try it. But, if ever your grades slack off, or if you get seriously hurt, I don't think you're safe, etc., I reserve the right to reconsider your involvement. Deal?"
- Get more than a one-word answer when you ask them about their day, so both of you can experience and enjoy their accomplishments.
How you send your child off in the morning can set up the evening's conversation. For instance, send Robin off with, "What are you going to do to have a good day in Mr. Wood's class today [or in reading]?" Get your child to make a declaration of what they'll do that day. Then, when they come home you can say, "So tell me, how did your plan work? How did it go in Mr. Wood's class? What did you do? What did he say?"
Don't ask, "How was your day," unless you’re going to follow it up with more questions. "How was your day" invites a one-word response. Instead, ask open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Here are a few to get you started.
- Tell me two things you learned today.
- What was your favorite part of the day?
- Which class was the most fun today? Why? What made it fun?
- Which class was the hardest today? Was it hard for everyone? What made it hard for you?
- What did you talk about in [science] class today?
- Give me the details—what happened at the cheerleading squad meeting?
- What did the coach have you work on in practice today? Show me how you do that drill. How did you do with it?
- Encourage your children to experiment and experience.
- While we should never pressure our children to be just like us (because we're so great) or to fill the voids and gaps (our regrets) we have about our own lives, we have a responsibility to encourage them to try new things, to experiment and to experience. It's all a critical part of total-learning and life-education.
- We inspire hope, courage and confidence in our children when we support their ambitions and passions, even if they are far removed from anything we would wish for them. As long as what she wants to do is positive, doesn't hurt her or anyone else, encourage her to try it out, go for it. If he wants to take ballet, let him. If she wants to try out for football, allow her to do so.
- Don't limit your child's options based on labels about boy vs. girl activities, or rich people vs. poor people activities, or what Blacks, Whites, Hispanics or Asians do, or your ideas of what's best for them. Those notions are rooted in LIES™. They limit options and short-change our potential for happiness and self-determined success.
With each experiment and experience comes an opportunity to get to know your child better and to support who he or she is, not your image of him or her, or your story about who you want her or him to be. Encourage your children to evolve in the direction of their natural gifts and talents and watch them flourish and grow into fulfilled, well-adjusted adults.
School is where many of the LIES that we carry with us through life originate. Get your back-to-school copy of LIES That Limit and learn how to recognize those critical pivot points that can make or break your child.
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