Top billing

Parents of kids who struggle with or resist traditional academic subjects (math, reading, writing, etc.) are usually encouraged to concentrate all their energy and resources on helping kids with those areas.  It makes sense, but it also doesn’t usually work.  It often has the opposite effect of what we intend.  With a few exceptions, kids who are struggling with these subjects are not especially driven to excel in them.  They may express frustration and upset about their struggle, but that’s usually the result of social pressure to excel in those areas.  These are the areas we value and kids know it.

So here we are, helping them like crazy with things that make them feel lousy about themselves and measure their success only in the areas they struggle with.  Meanwhile, they have strengths and capacities in other areas that get short-changed or neglected entirely while the academic subjects get top billing.  We do this out of good intention.  We do it because we’ve been taught that the job of adults is to train kids to do school stuff.  But when we do it to the exclusion of areas that kids have a chance of thriving in, we cheat them out of the chance to really succeed and we sabotage our own efforts to get them academically proficient. Our academic bias and obsession actually costs kids motivation and excellence both in the areas that make great use of their existing capacities and the areas we’ve chosen to zoom in on as a culture.

If you see this happening with your own kids, what can you do?  You can start by putting at least as much attention on what kids are already committed to as you put on what you are committed to.  You can notice the creativity and craft and initiative in what matters to them, whether it’s building mammoth Lego kingdoms or playing the drums or writing silly comics or reorganizing their stuffed animals or designing dresses or doing jigsaw puzzles or skateboarding.  You can say things like “I’m realizing that you’ve got a real knack for baking and it’s something that’s really important to you.  I’d like us to figure out how to make room for it in the day.” Kids thrive when they’re seen for who they are and what they have to contribute.  It’s a relief for them to be recognized and respected this way; it means they have less to resist and less they have to fight for.

And you don’t have to give up the hope that they will read fluently, write legibly, and calculate percentages in order to honor these other things. When they’re not busy resisting and fighting for their own capacities, they’re not only a lot easier to get along with; they also become more available for input and support from adults.  When you honor whatever it is that’s already underway with them – what they’re already exploring and attempting to master – you might find that the reading and writing and fussing with numbers actually becomes more appealing (and any difficulty with it, more overcome-able).

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