Friday, March 18, 2011

On Refusing to Provide Answers

The other day, Ryan and I had a serious, serious disagreement about homeschooling philosophy and my role as  homeschooling mommy.

His view: I ask questions and Mom provides the answers.

My view: Ryan asks questions and I help him figure out the answer for himself.

He wanted to know how to spell Spider-Man because he was searching for the movie on Netflix. I said something like "Oh, I think that's a word you can figure out how to spell--what are the first three letters?"

Things went downhill from there.

He refused to even try. He threw out random groups of three letters and then cried, saying it was too hard, that he could NEVER do it.

I tried to be encouraging and supportive. He's recently admitted to me that he hates hates! being wrong (I knew this already, but it's a good thing that he realizes this about himself). We'd had a heart-to-heart talk about that, complete with lots of sharing of my own personal struggles with this, and it was a good conversation about courage and confidence (see the quotation I included in yesterday's Objectivist Round Up). We talked about how it's tough in the moment, but it usually feels great after you've worked hard and successfully solved a problem.

It's HARD to be wrong. I know this, for I feel just the same way on those very rare fairly frequent occasions I am actually wrong about something. And he is just like me in so many ways.

Back to Spider-Man. I was as kind and helpful as I knew how to be. I explained that I didn't want to simply provide him with the answer because A.) I was pretty confident he could manage this himself (the kid reads very well), and B.) I was growing weary of answering questions for him when he wouldn't even attempt to figure out the answer on his own. I offered to help him figure it out, to give him a suggestion about how he could go about doing this independently. That's where I was willing to help, but I would not give him the answer.

The whole time this was going on, I kept flashing back to when he was three years old and had had a meltdown because I'd refused to remove his pants for him. He cried and kicked and flailed and accused me of all manner of crimes, and the whole time, his pants were down to his ankles already. Once, he nearly actually kicked them all the way off, and hastened to make sure that the pants were still at least touching his toes, because of course if they'd come off that would completely negate the point that he'd been trying to make so dramatically--that it was my job to remove his pants!

This spelling thing was the exact same fit for the exact same reason. Five years ago, I refused to do that for him because I was tired of handling a task for him that I was certain he could manage himself. And the other day I was similarly tired of spelling things for him when he was unwilling to attempt it seriously himself.

Eventually he calmed down, adopted my suggestion of saying the word out loud very slowly and writing down the letter sounds, and--you guessed it--managed to spell spiderman (I left the hyphen issue for another day). Being Ryan, and still in the throes of anger, he made sure to point out that he did NOT feel happy about having solved the problem for himself. Because, I think, that having been correct about his ability to spell this word, he still wanted me to be wrong about something. I'd done a pretty good job of remaining emotionally detached from this, and by the time he was accusing me of being wrong about how he'd be proud of himself, I was completely disengaged from the argument.

Pants. Reading. Spelling. Math. Retrieving a lost ball over a fence (that happened yesterday at homeschool soccer). This is how he does: he insists, argues, whines, pushes, demands, fights, revolts, complains. After some lengthy amount of time, he manages the task.

I offer suggestions, tips, words of encouragement, reminders to speak kindly to me and others. I watch him struggle and suffer, and I struggle and suffer a little bit, too.

I know I'm doing the right thing for me (because I really do get tired of being treated as if I'm Wikipedia), and I think I'm doing the right thing for him (because I want him to get experience solving his problems independently, though with love and support from those who care about him most). I know that this is probably just how it's always going to be with him, and I've (mostly) made peace with that.

Anyone else out there have a kid like this? I'd love some tips (or words of encouragement)!


AprilS said...

I totally think you are doing the right thing. You can't let your kids expect you to do everything for them. A big part of parenting is teaching your child to do things for themselves. After all, once they leave the house you aren't going to be there to do it for them!
I have seen this behavior over and over and always cringe when I see other parents doing what the child wants just to shut them up. Biggest mistake ever! By giving in and doing the work for your child, you are just teaching them to throw a fit anytime they want something and don't get it. I think it takes a great parent to put up with the pain and potential embarrassment that comes from standing up to your child when they are throwing a fit.

John Drake said...

You are absolutely doing the right thing. My remember a time when my own mom did that to me. I want her to spell a word for me and she promptly informed me to look it up in a dictionary. I countered that if I could only find the word if I knew how to spell it, which it don't. Of course, what she knew and I didn't (at the time) was that I only needed to know how to spell the first few letters to find it.

Today, I use the same approach with my kids and with my students. Thomas and Tara both ask for things they can do themselves. Encouraging them to do it themselves helps them become more self-sufficient and helps us have more time for our own work. Its win-win (even if they don't see it that way).

Kevin McAllister said...

To some extent both of my daughters Allison (6) and Ashley (4) will refuse to try certain things as loudly as possible.

I especially like when Allison will demonstrate how impossible it would be for her to accomplish the task by choosing random letters in the case of spelling, or deliberately stumbling and falling and dropping all the things in her hands in the case of not wanting to carry something or do some physical task. Usually I let those things pass without comment with only a silent look until she moves to a different tactic.

Sometimes if I'm feeling generous and notice the warning signs early enough I will help them avoid digging in for the emotionally charged battle by making it playful. I'll say sure I'll help and proceed to screw up my face in intense concentration and say, I think spider-man starts with a 't'. And since my children love correcting my mistakes they quickly solve their own problem.

Or I'll offer to help but say, sure I can help you spell that in 3 minutes after I've finished reading this. As you know 3 minutes might as well be 3 months, and they promptly solve the issue themselves.

Ashley will often offer a compromise where she, "Just needs a hug before she does it." I rarely refuse her that, I'm happy to give them hugs anytime they want.

But other times, maybe most times, I refuse to help as politely but firmly as possible. And if they reach meltdown status I'll remind them that I can't think of any reason I'd want to help a wild screaming person.

Kevin McAllister said...

Oh, John reminded me. My father's approach was always to send me to look in the dictionary. And when I would bemoan my plight he'd also inform me that I can find 'sympathy' in the dictionary as well.

Happy Elf Mom said...

Aw, that works when you're six months old, but not six. Teachers are there to guide and yes they do need to make an effort, but you're right. :)

PS check your inbox on refusing to provide answers. I sent you a link.

Heike L. said...

Oh my - so it doesn't stop when they turn 8? My 4-year-old is JUST LIKE THAT, and I had hoped it would pass, soon...

I agree you are doing the right thing - it's painful, but the approach we follow as well.

Kevin, like your suggestions re: offering or giving a requested hug, and doing as thought you can't do it. I'll try that next time :)

yet to be named said...

My eldest(7) is the same way. She wants me to do stuff for her that she's capable of doing herself and I refuse until she shows me that she she has done her best to accomplish the task she has set out to do. If she can convince me that her best is not enough for the task, by showing me that she fails despite giving a good effort, then I gladly step in.

This process is sometimes very frustrating to her. She may have a breakdown about it, or show me a half-assed effort that fails very quickly. In those cases, I require her to "get the bad attitude out of her system" by doing exercises (push ups, sit ups, running in place) until she is ready to try her best. Quitting is not allowed once she comes to me for help. One way or another we will get her where she wants to go.

I really like it when, after breaking down about a task and refusing to try, doing her push ups, and then angrily committing to her goal and surprising us both with how successful she is or discovering a resource on her own that she enjoys getting her answers from using her own efforts. Her self esteem goes through the roof when she realizes that she can do what she previously thought she can't. We've done this process over and over again so many times that she hasn't had to do push ups in while because I can diffuse a breakdown by simply reminding her of past successes she's had when she gives her best effort.

Amy said...

Oh my god, Jenn. I'm so glad you wrote this right now. We have a running joke in our house that the words we hear from our daughter the most often are, "I can't do it...oh, I did it." I've written about this before - her lack of persistence, refusal to put effort into things, etc. Since she is only 4, I have no advice to offer, but only my understanding. The situation with Ryan and the pants could have been us.

To me it seems obvious that refusing to provide the answers is the right thing to do. At a certain point, you have to make a decision as a parent that the child is capable of acting independently in a particular area, and you need to let go. We try to do this as gently as possible, just like you.

We also work really, really hard at avoiding praise when Sam puts effort into something. We try to recognize her effort and help her identify any good feelings she might be having from the accomplishment: "Doesn't it make you feel good that you kept trying until you got it right?" or "That must feel great to do it by yourself." Sometimes those comments earn us an attack from her, and only rarely do we see genuine pride on her face. Well, more now than we used to, but it's still a problem.

And we're having an issue at school right now with this, which I plan to write about soon. It scares the crap out of me, I must admit. I wonder how you've made your peace with it. Do you consider this a temperament issue? It might be, but I believe persistence is a virtue - something one should work towards if it doesn't come naturally. And I fear that these behaviors of Ryan and Sam could lead to an anti-effort mentality later in life. I know that it is ultimately the child's choice, but I want to do everything I can to guide Sam away from that road.

I just read the comments, and maybe what we're seeing is actually a normal developmental thing with some kids. I really need some perspective on this issue and I'm not sure how to get it. I've actually been considering asking Sam's doctor for a referral to a child psychologist.

Monica said...


As a college educator, I can tell you that this is an enormous problem among so many people, and you are absolutely doing the right thing. Every semester I deal with a large cohort of students whose shoulders slump when they are required to do even the simplest of tasks laid out before them. It's bizarre. The other day I announced in class that we wouldn't be having any lab that day, and it was unfortunately going to be a longer lecture day. Some of the students were actually relieved that all they had to do was sit there and take notes for 3 hours. (Actually, this is not quite true. They usually sit there and don't take notes unless I get frustrated and tell them they should pick up their pens and write down what I am saying.) Seriously? What student in their right mind would rather sit and listen to lecture for three hours rather than do a hands-on lab? Apparently, having to think a little about how to set up an experiment is just. too. hard. UGH. Helicopter parents, ever lowering educational standards due to an entitlement mentality, and an era where everything can be looked up on an iPhone have created a generation of nincompoops. It is generally a much worse problem in my younger students compared to older students (with some exceptions), and, sad to say, it is a much bigger problem in American-born students. I have many ESL students who can barely speak English and face far greater hurdles than my other students, and they work their asses off to do well, and they DO. Obviously we can't blame this all on culture, though, since your example (and Amy Mossoff's, today) show that the issue is encountered in very young children with independent parents.

I have no tips, but you're absolutely doing the right thing.

I-330 said...

I’m quite interested in your actual home schooling sessions. When presented with the minor task of spelling the word Spiderman, your 8.5 year old son immediately throws a tantrum and begins to cry. Not only does he approach the (hopefully) everyday occurrence of spelling as some insurmountable goal, but you respond in kind. The process of getting your 8.5 year old son to spell one word is presented as a major ordeal worthy of its very own blog entry. This is the child you home school. How does he respond when you are actively trying to teach him something?

Linda said...

I can certainly relate. Not only are many things made mountains out of by my child, but she wants to make sure I recognize when I am wrong, and she wants the last word on everything. I just have two pieces of advice, one from my mother, who managed to survive me, (apparently I was "exactly like" my daughter)and one piece of advice from my midwife. My mom's advice? Pick your battles, if today it is more important to win getting him to spell Spiderman, then you win, if it is not on the top of the battle list today, let him win. Sometimes your child needs to experience winning the battle as a learning experience, too. My midwife's advice? Will it matter in 10 years? If it is going to matter in ten years, you stick to your guns, and make sure he learns it, whatever "it" is. If in the long range scheme of things it is more productive to actually do school, rather than spend a long time butting heads...
Hmm, essentially, both my mother and my midwife gave me the same advice in different words. :)
My personal experience with my gifted, ADHD daughter says it is better to let her win "I want to do science, first, every day" because we get science and much more done. When I insist that we learn in my order, language arts, math at the beginning of the day, that is all we will get done because she will be so uncooperative. At any rate, you have to stand your ground sometimes, and he needs to win sometimes. The balance is the trick.
Best of luck!

Helping my gifted student beat back boredom, one lesson at a time!