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Mother’s Day Musings

Like most of you, I am spending my Mother’s Day being a mother. What that means to each of us varies slightly by our customs, values, and geographical location. But in basic terms, we create, we nurture, we teach, and then we let go.

ModelingOne mothering task I’ve spent some time on today is one happening in a good number of American households, I suspect: helping my son finish a project that was just a little more of a stretch of his abilities than he’d thought. I’ve heard and read a lot of parents say that this is one part of parenting they hadn’t planned on. They thought that they were going to send their kid to school, the teacher would teach, the kid would learn, and then it’s off to college and a job.

It occurs to me, though, that we modern Americans have got a few things backwards. In recent readings I’ve come across variations on a theme that goes somewhat like this: When our children are babies, we understand how to teach them. We talk to them using the words we want them to learn, we hold their hands as they take their first steps, we praise them for drawings that we could do much better ourselves.

Yet as our children grow, especially when they enter school age, our culture starts to encourage to force kids to learn the “right” way. While before we were showing them examples, incorporating learning into their everyday lives, and praising them for their efforts, as they start to “study” (as opposed to learn), we throw that all out the window. We expect learning to happen somewhere else, we expect them to learn a body of knowledge and skills divorced from their usefulness, and we show them our displeasure through grading, testing, and “high expectations.”

One thing I have especially been aware of has been how our culture looks at parents “helping” their older school children. Just a few days ago I sat at the awards ceremony for the state science fair. You can’t get more positive about learning than a science fair. But when one participant’s first prize was announced and his project mentor had the same last name as him, the man next to me groaned and rolled his eyes. The implication was clear: Oh, these pushy parents reliving their glory through their children.

Now, I agree that there is too much of this. I’ve come across it myself. However, if we agree not to include parents who basically do the work for the child, telling them what to do step by step, not letting the child make mistakes, we’re only ruling out some of these cases of parents “helping.” Clearly this method of helping is not helping at all – it’s inflating the child’s sense of what she is capable of, and setting her up for an awful, self-esteem-smashing fall

But let’s ignore that sort of “help” and look instead at the sort of help that parents give children when they’re very young. All parents want their children to walk, but none of them walk “for” the child. We carry when necessary, we hold hands, but we know that if we never let the child practice the skill with help and encouragement, it won’t happen.

As our children grow, our role in their learning should not become less important. I think it becomes more important. We are still their models and their guides, though the learning they are doing is often what we would call “school work” and not “natural” learning like walking.

Since I started homeschooling, I have really learned the difference between destructive “helping,” where a parent makes sure that a child never fails by simply doing the child’s work and coaching him to make it seem like it’s his own, and constructive helping, where a parent models skills and guides a child.

It’s well-known in the music world that most of the great musicians had musical parents. In the past, this was incorrectly believed to be genetic. In fact, you still hear people saying, “I didn’t get musical genes.”

But really, the reason that children of musicians become musicians themselves is that their parents modeled the behavior and then encouraged it in their own children. (Yes, I will agree with you that some parents go way too far in the encouragement category, but you can’t practice for your child.)

I’ve known plenty of people who have discovered a love of something that was never modeled for them in their families, and those people figured out a way to do that thing that spoke to them. Most of them find a mentor outside of the family, I suspect. Few of us really achieve something all on our own, without some sort of modeling to build on.

So yes, my son decided to do a project that was a little past his abilities. And for the last few days we have been grappling with this. But I hope that my role has been mentoring, so that in the future, he’ll be able to do this on his own. And I know that in mentoring him, I’ve learned a bit more about myself as well.

My children are no longer sustained by the food from my body. They no longer need me to carry them. They speak enough language to get all the basics of life taken care of.

But that doesn’t mean that now I should just let their ships crash on the rocks that I could lead them past. I hope that as I lead them past those rocks, they are watching how I do it. And next time, they’ll be that much closer to independence.

Posted in Homeschooling, Parenting.

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