Why do we expect so little of our children?

We’re homeschool lite around here. That means I send my kids to traditional school, but I work with them at home too. It works, and I plan to continue in this way unless something shady goes down and I have to roll up in there and set it all the way off unless I begin to feel that traditional school just isn’t a good fit for them. I don’t forsee that being a problem, but mama’s always got her eyes open.

Anyhoo, I have a cousin who teaches kindergarten at an elementary school that is big on structure and discipline. She told me the kids often have to do their work over if it isn’t done correctly. She gave an example of a child having to do a coloring sheet over because he went far outside the lines. My first thought was, That’s too harsh and it’ll stifle their creativity! We shouldn’t be teaching kids to “live inside the lines.” That’s what I thought, but I didn’t say anything. I just listened. She said she felt uncomfortable at first, being so “critical” of kids, but she now sees the benefit and result of having high expectations.

My concern was their confidence. Wouldn’t that make them feel like they aren’t good enough? But she explained that there is no actual criticism. They don’t tell the children they did a bad job. They simply tell them it wasn’t what they asked for, and then give instruction again. So for a child who colored outside the lines, she’d say, “You see how you went out the lines here? I want you to do it over, but stay inside the lines this time, ok?” She then hands him a fresh paper and he colors it again, staying in the lines this time. The point of this exercise isn’t to teach them to be robots who do everything exactly the same, but to help them develop their fine motor skills. And it really works. She works at a top-performing school, and she is always amazed by how well the children do when they have a clear and reasonable expectation.

I was hesitant at first, but it made sense, and it got me thinking about the well-intentioned disservice we may be doing our children when we don’t push them to do better. Because we love them so much, we always want to encourage them, fill their minds with positive words and let them know we love the work they do regardless of what it looks like. Hi-fives all around for unconditional love, but there is no reason that our love should prevent us from teaching them to be their best. So I was forced to ask myself, why was I so bothered by the idea of having a child do work again? Why was I so convinced that a child’s first attempt should be automatically accepted? Are children so incredibly fragile that they will be destroyed by any level of correction? Of course not. Children tend to be far more resilient that adults, and while that is no excuse to be hard on or critical of them, it does provide solace that they won’t break under the “weight” of edification.

So I took this newfound understanding into my homeschool work with Son, a soon-to-be kindergartener. Before, when I’d have him write letters, I’d praise almost anything he did and just assumed it would get better as long as we kept doing it (and that probably would have been true in the long run.) I can remember times where the work he did looked nothing like what I was trying to teach him and I’d still rush to offer up a hearty, “good job!” But once I stopped with all the praise and focused more on building skill, his handwriting got so much better, almost overnight!

Below is a picture of some of the jammin’ works he’s done. First I had him trace his name and then write it by himself. (The boxes help him control his movement.) I’m not sure how visible it is in the photo, but there are erase marks on the R, Y, A, 3 and 4. Those are the letters and numbers he had most trouble with, so I asked him to do it over, but I told him exactly what I wanted him to do (e.g., “I want you to write the letter A again, but this time make the top pointy instead of round.”) If he had a lot of trouble, I’d flip the paper over and practice with him there. The end result is the neat, completely legible work you see before you. (Clearly I’m biased, but I’m impressed!)


20160510_113457I wish I had a picture of some of his older work for comparison, but I just recently started keeping track of what he does. Everything else is probably crumpled up under the sofa somewhere, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say the improvement was great. And the best part: his confidence has actually grown! He’s genuinely excited to show me his work, and–if he’s in a good mood–he’ll even volunteer to do it over if he recognizing something isn’t looking right. He’s never responded in a way that suggests he feels shame or defeat.

But be warned, this method is more work on you, the parent. Taking the time to do it over (and over and over if need be) means more work and possible frustration for you. Wish I knew some kind of workaround to eliminate that step, but I don’t think one exists. I simply accept that it has to be done, and I know that the work I put in now will benefit him throughout life. This isn’t just about pointy As and rounded Bs. It’s about self-mastery. So I hope this encourages other parents to “harden up” when it comes to working with your little ones. I promise you, they won’t break.

-Nadirah Angail

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