Saturday, April 23, 2016

Buy me a helicopter, please.

The problem with raising my children to be autonomous, self-sufficient, capable, and responsible is that they're not actually autonomous, self-sufficient, capable, or responsible (yet).  And when they mess up, it's just so hard not to swoop in and fix things myself.

The boys have been at the Quaker Local School for about a year-and-a-half, largely so we could remove them from a particularly Lord-of-the-Flies middle school scene.  The new school wins awards from us on the social side; on the academic support side, the school is a bit more meh than our public schools, mostly because my boys need more-than-the-usual amount of academic support.

For a year and a half, then, we've been yo-yo-ing through missed assignments and make-up work.  We remind the boys of the importance of keeping track.  We work with them on developing planning and paper-tracking systems.  We check with teachers, but only after we suspect the boys are far more behind than they actually say they are (and we're almost always right, alas).  We describe natural consequences ("If you don't want to work hard in this school, we don't want to work hard to pay for you to go there.")

For some of our older kids, the fear of academic failure or parental approval kicked in when their grades dropped to A- or B.  (My husband used to offer to pay one of my particularly driven step-daughters $50 for every D she brought home; of course he never needed to shell out that money). But my sons are content to be scholarly submariners, sailing along below C level.  For example:
Me to J-son:  How are your classes going?
J-son:  Fine.
Me:  What does "fine" mean?  What are your grades like so far?
J-son:  They're good.  Well, I'm failing two classes, but that's only because I did badly on the exams.
N-son, it turns out, is doing even worse.  His teachers tell us that he has missed major assignments in almost all of his classes, while he was telling us he was on top of things.  Sigh.  What's a parent to do?

I know that the path between total parental control and total child autonomy has many steps.  At first, we constantly remind the child, "Say 'thank you'!".  Then we step back to "And what do you say?"; then we retreat to meaningful pauses with pointed glances, until our children are masters of gratitude.  But what happens if they grab the present and run?

I want my Blackhawk so I can be that helicopter parent.  I want to make a list of assignments, strap my kids to the chair in front of their homework, and ply them with sharp pencils and sheaves of blank paper until their work is done.  I want to threaten, to bribe, to shine like a golden example of organization and conscientiousness that any teenage boy could not help but admire and want to emulate.

But instead.

Instead, first, there are indeed natural consequences.  N-son in particular, because of his multiply-missed assignments, has lost the chance to go on a desired field trip.  Even more consequentially, we've told him that next year, he'll be out of the Quaker Local School and back in the public school -- which, as I said before, I actually think might be better for him academically.  J-son has been told he's on probation: he's shown a lot of improvement in turning in his assignments, but if he can't figure out a plan for more effective studying (in other words, any studying at all), he too will have to leave the friends he's made these past 18 months.

Second, we still want to help our kids get onto that path of completed work.  I'm trying so hard to not confuse the short-term ("get caught up") with the long-term skills ("keep track of and then fulfill your own obligations"), but the short term calls.  I made a list of all the work that N-son has to do.  And then I stuck it in my drawer.

In The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely writes about what makes people like an idea or a task, and he explains that experiments show that who describes the idea is more significant than what the idea is.  In particular,
Regardless of what we create--a toy box, a new source of electricity, a new mathematical theorem--much of what really matters to us is that it is our creation. As long as we create it, we tend to feel rather certain that it's more useful and important than similar ideas that other people come up with.
So I spent a half-hour or more on Friday morning, working with N-son to develop his own task list for the weekend.  He wrote "Chores.  Homework.  Drums.  Voice."  I encouraged him on the good start, and suggested that being more specific might help: what chores? what homework?  He fleshed out the homework area:  "Bible.  Band.  Gym."   (I bit my tongue and screamed inside, "What about HISTORY AND BIOLOGY AND MATH!!!????) .  Out-loud I asked, "And anything else?"  Slowly, he added bit-by-bit to the list.  Eventually, he came up with four different pages of tasks for this long, four-day weekend.

We color-coded the list (things that need the computer get a blue tick; things that need parental help get a yellow tick; things that he likes to do that could be a reward get a red tick; etc).  He numbered the first 8 tasks he ought to get to.  He got to work.
N-son doing schoolwork, with my proxy helicopter by his side.

He's gotten distracted off and on, but right now he's working hard on his overdue history assignment, and just asked his dad to proofread it.  He's already crossed off the first 6 items on his list so far.  I *think* he feels like he owns the list and the tasks it lays out for him.

As for me, my tongue still has tooth marks, and that helicopter store beckons.  But I'll wait a little while longer before I pull out my credit card.  

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