Encouraging Your Child to Work
Do your children cry every time you crack open the math book? Are “I can’t do this!” and “This is too hard!” common refrains in your house?
If you’ve recently taken your child out of school, consider that the child may have learned poor habits from former school experiences. If you’re covering a new subject, the child may sincerely not know how to do the task assigned. If you think that this is the case, you must patiently, consistently, and frequently walk the child through the difficulty in order to build confidence. If particular tasks produce tears and complaints, consider spending less time more frequently on the subject; if, for example, math always results in tears, start doing 1/2 of the lesson in the morning and finish the other 1/2 in the evening. Assign every other problem, rather than every single problem. Don’t overwhelm the child with a long, complicated lesson in a subject where he’s unsure of himself.
But it may also be the case that your child has learned how to get out of difficult work by complaining, refusing, or crying. If the behaviour continues, post on a chart or on a piece of paper that you can both see the consequences for refusing to do work (if you are convinced the child is able to do it). Having the consequences laid out and visible before the behavior occurs can take some of the tension out of the situation. You’re not forced to decide, while you and the child are both upset, how to resolve the problem. Rather, the child knows ahead of time what will happen if he cries, complains, or refuses to work.
When the undesirable behavior occurs, do not scold, do not lecture, and do not express anger or irritation. Just state the alternative and go on with the day. If a complaint occurs when you simply state the alternative, double the consequence. (But make sure you forewarn the child of this result! Otherwise you will produce resentment.) One parent who successfully broke the habit of complaining with his child continually doubled the work so that it filled all of the child’s free time for two days. The child stopped complaining.
Tell the child that specific assignments have to be completed before play-time begins. Then carry through; refuse to excuse the child for play until the work is done. A good rule might be, “If you play during study time, you must study during play time.”
Whatever solution you try (“Every time you say, ‘This is too hard!’ in a whiny voice, as opposed to genuinely asking me for help, you will lose twenty minutes of computer time.”), keep in mind the child should feel the consequence, not the parent. If the consequence penalizes you (if, for example, you have to sit across from the child enforcing the consequence for half an hour), the situation will not get better; you will just become more angry and frustrated at the child.
But don’t forget to examine yourself! It may be that the child’s emotional response comes partly from your own habits. Have you continually allowed the child to take the easy way out when faced with hard tasks? Have you exhibited impatience in teaching, making the child feel inadequate? If so, you need to “clear the air” before beginning any behavior modification with your child. Tell the child honestly and without blameshifting (don’t say, “I got angry, but you really were being irritating!”) what you’ve done wrong. Ask the child to forgive you. (Not, “If I hurt your feelings, I’m sorry,” but “I hurt your feelings by yelling, and I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”) Then work together on establishing consequences for the bad behavior. Don’t forget that it takes six weeks to change a habit, and don’t give up on your consequences chart too early.
Examine your own parental behavior: Are you modeling attitudes? Do you give up in frustration when faced with a difficult task or with a task you don’t enjoy? Do you complain about jobs, rather than just doing them and getting them out of the way? Do you procrastinate rather than clearing out unpleasant tasks? If so, you can hardly blame the child for copying you!
As you discuss the problem with your child, remember that you must stayed focused on the long-term goal: teaching the child to be self-motivated and to take personal responsibility for outcomes of her decisions. Point out to the child that she ultimately makes the daily decision to fail in a task or succeed. Explain that the mental discipline and self-control needed to complete a difficult assignment doesn’t come naturally; it’s hard work, like jogging a mile for someone who’s out of shape! Make sure she understands that many necessary tasks in life are not pleasant .We do these as quickly as we can do them well to get them out of the way.
Don’t forget that children are immature! They cannot see the connection between present behavior and future success. It is up to the parent to provide the immediate gratification for success or the immediate unpleasant consequences for substandard work or behavior so the child will develop habits of success and receive reward for it. Don’t forget to practice generous amounts of encouragement and praise for desired attitudes, and make sure that you recognize and applaud successes that directly result from a child’s decision to change negative behavior.
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