What You Say, How You Say It, and What You Do Afterwards


One of the great microcosms for parenting styles is a child’s sporting event. There are the parents who sit placidly in the bleachers, cheering when appropriate at an indoor volume level. There are the parents who treat the game like a social event, paying the game minimal attention and focusing on the parents around them for entertainment. Then, there are the parents who are foaming at the mouth, throwing themselves against the fence, screaming at the referee, coaches, other people’s children, and their own child. And, of course, there are the absent parents. This is not meant to be a judgment against any parenting style. In fact, one individual can encompass all of these various personas within a season, depending on the day. For me, these different parenting personas can be carried over into everyday parenting situations. There’s the cheerleader, the laissez-faire parent, the over-involved guardian, and the absent parent.

Watching parents at sporting events is just as fun as watching the event itself! (Image Credit: http://blog.teamsnap.com/sports-parents-2/bleacher-basics-guidelines-for-youth-sports-parents/)

For academic support, which of these personas is the most effective? The answer is difficult to arrive at. There are times when the absent parent may be the most effective, and others when the over-involved guardian may prove invaluable. It all depends on the situation; everything from the subject matter involved to the child in question. A child who struggles in science may need the laissez-faire parent to leave him alone so he can work through his homework in peace. The child who excels in math may need the over-involved guardian to make sure that her homework is being completed and handed in.

Homework help or hinderance? (Image Credit: http://reducehomeworkstress.com/blog/)

These parenting styles become even more important when a child needs help on homework. What kinds of encouragement techniques should be used? Figuring out which technique to use can be difficult. Let’s look at some of the terms parents (and educators) use when encouraging a child and evaluate their efficacy.

 “I know you can do this.”

This phrase becomes a challenge to the student. It may be used to great success, encouraging a student who lacks confidence but has the ability. The confidence this statement implies, the idea that the adult knows that the child can complete a difficult problem, can be empowering. “Yes,” the child may think, “I can do this!” However, it can also backfire. In cases when a child genuinely does not know the answer, and the challenge cannot be met, he or she may shut down entirely or argue against the statement. “No, I can’t do this! I don’t know how! It’s too hard!” The best way to use this statement is when a student is stuck on a problem you truly believe he or she can solve. However, it should be followed by the adult taking the time to break down the problem in a way that the child can build up the pieces of information he or she definitely knows into a solution for the larger problem. For example, on a complex math problem, the parent should break down functions the child knows how to do, such as multiplication, before focusing on harder concepts, such as graphing. The supplemental breakdown that follows this statement keeps it from becoming a dismissal of the child’s concerns about his or her success on a problem, while still being a vote of confidence in his or her abilities.

“We just solved a problem like this!”

“Yeah,” your child may respond, “but I still don’t understand!” Or maybe, “oh, yeah! I remember now!” For this phrase, tone of voice is especially important. Do you sound exasperated, or do you sound encouraging? If you sound exasperated, you’re saying that your child is stupid for not immediately picking up on the similarities. It says that you’re tired of working on problems that it’s obvious your child cannot solve. If you sound encouraging, you’re saying that it was hard, certainly, but that your child already did something like it and can do it again. It’s a reminder that it isn’t impossible.

“This is easy!”

Easy is a loaded word. If your child is just frustrated at the amount of work to do, pointing out that something is easy to complete may be encouraging. However if your child is genuinely struggling with something, this may be the end of working for the evening. Few things are as frustrating to a child who is genuinely struggling as being told that the work he or she can’t grasp is easy. “Then I must be stupid!” the child thinks, and shuts down entirely. Before saying something is easy, make sure the entire situation is assessed properly, or else you may have World War III on your hands.

 “Let’s figure this out together.”

Cooperation is usually good, especially when a child has reached his or her breaking point on an assignment or problem. Make sure, however, that you truly work it out together and don’t just finish it for your child, as the only thing the child learns from that experience is that giving up is the key to getting someone else to do difficult tasks. Truly engage your child in figuring out what’s going on by making him or her break down the issue with you and find answers to the smaller pieces. This statement acknowledges that a problem is difficult without saying it’s impossible for the student to complete.

 “This is really tough!”

Honesty really is the best policy, and acknowledging that something is difficult even for an adult can be helpful. Sometimes, people just want someone else to recognize that the work they are doing is challenging. However, some children who struggle may feel that this means the work is entirely impossible for them if their parents even think it’s difficult. Acknowledge the difficulty, but then move past it with your child to the best of both your abilities. Show your child that even difficult tasks can be overcome with enough work.

No matter what you actually say, make sure you watch the tone in which you say it and focus on the actions you take after saying it. That way, everyone feels successful at the completion of a task.

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