When helping your kids isn't really helpful
My oldest son is an all-around great kid. Of course I’m biased, but truly, he is wonderful. He is kind, funny, hard-working, and never gets in trouble. He is in 5th grade this year. Overall, it’s been a good school year, he has done well and maintained great grades. As parents, we could not be more proud of him.
A few weeks ago, we were informed that the 5th graders were required to do a project where they choose a politician and complete a detailed report on their accomplishments and political background, among other things. This was a big project, worth a great deal of points.
This year, my husband and I have been making a concerted effort to not micromanage our son’s school life. We know that he will be in middle school soon, so we have taken a step back and are not digging in his planner or bag. We are putting the responsibility on him to remember to bring us the forms that need to be signed and the flyers that need to be read. We purposely did not ask too much about the project.
The project was to be turned in on the first day back after the weekend. I picked up my son from school on that Friday and on the way home, we talked a little about school and how the project was due on Monday. He said he was pretty much done with it. After we got home, he went to his room to finish the project, stating that he didn’t want to put it off. “What a good boy”, I thought as he disappeared down the hall.
A minute later, he came in to the kitchen, looking worried. He said, “I need to send an email to my teacher.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“My project. It’s a big packet that I have to finish filling out. I don’t have it. It’s in my desk at school,” he told me.
I sighed. I mean, I sighed a big, old Mom sigh. Really? I mean, really, really? Didn’t I remind him about this? Didn’t we just talk about this?! Now, we have had a good school year, but there have been some bumps in the road. Forgetting stuff. Disorganization. Failure to plan. The project was due upon arrival at school, and he didn’t have it. My mind raced for a moment and I wondered what could be done to help him. I didn’t want him to get a bad grade. He works hard. He really is the best. I felt annoyed. I felt worried. I felt irritated. I started to talk, but then I stopped myself.
I leaned over and picked up my phone. I opened the app that we use for communicating with his teacher. I showed my son how to start a message to her. I touched his shoulder and said, “Yikes. That’s a bummer. Good luck.” I turned back to the dishes in the sink.
As I washed those dishes, I said everything silently, in my head, that I wanted to say. Those dirty cups and plates got a very stern talking to about taking school seriously, but my mouth was closed. A few minutes later, my son handed me my phone. His eyes were worried. He felt bad. He felt like he was going to be in trouble at home and at school. I softened.
“What did you say in the message?”
“I told her that I left the packet in my desk and I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, buddy. It’s Friday afternoon. She’s off the clock. She’s probably not going to check her messages at this point, and if she does, she is under no obligation to respond to you, or to tell you what to do. I think you need to figure out what to do.”
“I don’t know what to do,” he said as he chewed on a fingernail.
“My suggestion is you do everything that you can to still create a great project. You will probably have to do a lot of work over again, but you can’t sit around and wait for her to give you direction. You need to figure it out.”
“OK.” He disappeared back in his room.
He emerged about thirty minutes later, looking more confident.
“I’m going to make a power point and put all the information in it that we were required to write on the packet. I’ll explain what happened, hand it in, and just hope for the best.” My husband was home by then, and he nodded. I smiled.
“A suggestion,” my husband said, “Think about messaging your teacher again and let her know that this is your plan. That way, if she does check her messages, she will know that you are trying to fix this.”
“OK.” He disappeared into his room again.
We didn’t see him much that evening. He told us over dinner that it was going well. He was texting friends in his class to make sure that he didn’t forget any details. They were sending him pictures of the packet so he could see exactly what he needed to do. Neither of us asked to see the power point, we just encouraged him to keep going and get it done.
We didn’t make a big deal about him forgetting the packet and we didn’t make a big deal about his plan to fix the problem. We just let it go and let it sit on our son’s shoulders. We talked about the possibility of his teacher taking points off, no matter how good his power point is, because of his mistake. We talked about the possibility of her not accepting the project at all. We talked about how his grade could be affected. We also talked about the fact that no one is perfect. Things happen. Sometimes, when you make a mistake, you deal with your consequences. And that we love him, no matter what.
This was a little hard for me. I had to hold back because what I wanted to do was talk more, to lecture him on forgetfulness and organization. I wanted to check the power point. I wanted to see the messages from friends so that I could make sure that he was really doing all the parts of the assignment that he was supposed to. I didn’t do any of those things, though, because I knew it would be more helpful to him (in the long run) to not help him. Let him figure it out. Let him turn in a bad assignment and get a bad grade. Let him learn from it. Let it become a memory of that time in 5th grade where that project almost didn’t get done or that he got a bad grade. He will remember that.
We have tried to take this approach in other parts of life, too. If his soccer uniform doesn’t get put in the washer, it’s not going to get washed. If you don’t hang up your shirt, it will be so wrinkled, it will look like you slept in it. If you lose your jacket, you’re going to be pretty cold on those chilly mornings, but no one is going to run out the next day and buy you a new one.
I see moments of anxiety and annoyance in my son’s eyes when he is reminded of these things, but what I also see is someone who is learning to remember to throw his dirty clothes in the washing machine. I see someone who is checking the Lost and Found for his jacket. I see someone who messages his teacher for advice on a forgotten project and then spends all day Saturday fixing his mistake.
I was proud of him. I was also proud of myself. As a therapist at Teen Xpress, I help people in different ways all day long. It’s in my nature to try to help anyone and everyone. I am learning that as a parent, helping changes as your kids grow up. Sometimes, not helping is the best help of all.
A few weeks later, our son handed over some schoolwork with a proud smile. Amidst the reading logs and handouts, there was his politician project power point with his grade written on it in red ink. I flipped through it. He actually did an amazing job, and he got an “A.” This time, that “A” meant more than just a really great grade. That “A” stood for forgetfulness, resourcefulness, dedication, communication, and hard work. That “A” stood for making mistakes and learning from them.
That “A” reminded me to give my kid the space he needs to succeed and to fail, and on his own terms. Sometimes, as parents, I’m learning, that is the best kind of help we can give.