On a recent afternoon my eight year old son asked me to help with his homework. His class is reading the novel Stone Fox and his assignment was to answer the question, “Does the grandfather have a sense of humor?” The students were asked to make an argument, cite an example from the text, and finally, to draw a picture of the dog in the story, Searchlight.
I admired my son’s decision to complete this work on that Monday, since it wasn’t due until Friday. He apparently has not inherited my tendency to procrastinate. (“Procrastinators of the World Unite…Tomorrow!”)
He knew the sentence he wanted to cite–the part about the grandfather pretending to be a scarecrow to fool his grandson—but he didn’t know how to use quotation marks. He found the section and I guided him in the placement of the quotation marks.
Once he had completed the written part of the assignment, it was time to draw, but he announced, “I can’t draw dogs!” It makes me cringe to hear a child express frustration. Even though I know that frustration does not harm a child – that it is, in fact, an important and positive feeling for a person to face and work through — it’s hard to refrain from erasing a child’s frustration by fixing every problem. I’m no artist, but I certainly could have outlined a dog for my son. But then I would have robbed him of a learning experience that could have helped him gain confidence in his abilities. Showing him how to draw the dog would only reinforce his feeling of artistic ineptitude.
This is one of the many instances in which an adult’s help can hinder the child’s cognitive and emotional development. The child allows the adult to take over the task and then feels less competent as a result. Infant expert Magda Gerber instructed parents to intervene minimally with babies when they are problem solving, and I have found that her approach applies to older children too. “[B]y allowing them to do what they are capable of, by restraining ourselves from rescuing them too often, by waiting and waiting and waiting, by giving minimal help when they really need it, we allow our infants to learn and grow at their own time, and in their own way.”
I know this is controversial, but I don’t believe we should sit down to do homework with our children. Homework is designed by a teacher to be within a child’s capabilities. Unfortunately, I now know many bright and capable children who believe they cannot manage schoolwork—or at least the level of work their parents expect—without the aid of the parents, babysitters and tutors. On their own they are not good enough. These children are robbed of the self-confidence and independence that they could have had if parents stayed out of the way. (And according to clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, tutoring can actually encourage children to stop listening and focusing in class because they know they can depend on private instruction.)
Parents can give productive assistance by being available if the child asks for help. Then they are advised to give the minimum direction necessary to allow the child to continue to struggle with the problem himself and ultimately own both his process and his accomplishments.
This rule of thumb applies equally to infants as older children. If an infant’s ball rolls under a low table, the parent’s best tactic is the following: first, wait and see if the child even wants to retrieve the ball; he may just want to look at it, or he might move on to something else. Second, let the child make his own attempt at solving the problem, even if aggravation mounts. Third, if frustration persists, talk the child through the process of retrieving the ball. If that does not work, move the table the tiniest bit so that the child can then retrieve the ball. We then help the infant to be as autonomous as possible.
Older children need to continue this experience of autonomy. Children find interest in ‘process.’ Adults are more result-oriented. With this in mind I tried to think of a way to help my son as minimally as I could. He continued to insist that he could not draw a dog.
Stone Fox rested on the table in front of us and had a picture of Searchlight, the husky on the cover. “There’s a picture of the dog right here,” I pointed out. My son checked to see if he could trace the picture, but his book report paper was not transparent enough. “Nice try,” I said, relieved that he would have to be more creative than that. He and I were both at a loss for what to do next. I waited. His alarm was growing. I winged it. Looking at the dog in the picture, I asked, “Okay, what’s the first thing you see?” “I see the spot,” he answered. There was a white spot on the forehead of Searchlight (hence his name). “Okay, draw that, “ I suggested. He drew a small, lonely circle on the page. “Now what do you see?” “I see his mouth,” he said, and he drew a suspended mouth with teeth under the spot. He went on to see Searchlight’s eyes, ears, legs and then a tail, and soon he had drawn a dog that satisfied him.
I don’t always remember to trust a child and stay out of the way. One time last year I looked at my son’s finished homework and saw so many spelling errors that I blurted out, “Do you want me to help you with some spelling mistakes?” “No! We correct it in class!” he scolded me. I felt chagrined, but smiled to myself. My son has blazed his own educational path since infancy and has seldom needed me to light the way.