David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

When, What, Why

“Maggie,” a middle school child, has repeatedly forgotten to bring a pencil to math class. After the fifth infraction, Maggie’s teacher has given her a “lunchroom detention“ whereby Maggie must sit alone to eat and is not allowed to interact with any of her classmates. Which of the three parenting strategies most closely resembles your thoughts on how to help Maggie remember her pencil so that she will not have to eat lunch alone?

1. In my day we had to write our cypherin’ with a piece of tree bark, a broken stub of a slime-covered piece of tree bark at that. No child o’ mine will be mollycoddled and pampered like she’s the Queen of Sheba whoever that is. If she forgets her pencil, she will learn from the natural consequences. If she flunks out of school, joins the Foreign Legion, or ends up living in a cardboard box under an expressway as a result of her willful carelessness and disregard of the values of our pencil-toting family, that’s on her.

2.  Math is a critical skill. My child must know eighth grade math. Therefore, I sit at the back of my daughter’s class every day bringing dozens of designer pencils. Each time she loses a pencil, I surreptitiously put another one in her hand. (At the beginning of the term, I sat in my daughter’s lap so that I could give her the pencils more quickly but–for reasons I can not begin to understand–the teacher put the kibosh on that and I am now relegated to being ten feet away.)

3.  How my child behaves is never as important as the “why“ underneath. I chatted with my daughter after we finished mowing the lawn together and re-reading a Judy Blume book. It turns out that my daughter deliberately doesn’t bring her pencil to math class because she prefers to eat lunch by herself. Apparently there are some mean girls in the cafeteria with whom she doesn’t get along. Nothing I can do about that, but I did call another parent and invited her daughter—also a shy kid who doesn’t like math—to our house. Our daughters now eat lunch together and do their best to avoid the girls they don’t like. My daughter no longer “forgets” her pencil.

It will come as no surprise that this author prefers the third approach. The first answer is from a parent living in an imagined past in which being abusive was somehow supposed to correlate with academic success. The second over-top-parent is doing too, too much. Her child is less likely to be able to figure things out on her own and will be lucky if she is ever allowed to learn how to feed herself, never mind remember a pencil. Which brings our conversation to the distinction between what our children accomplish and how our children feel about themselves.

Some kids feel good about getting an A in math. Some kids feel good about having a group of friends. Some kids feel good about just having one peer with whom to eat lunch. Different strokes. I think our kids will find their way if we trust their feelings—if not their judgment. Especially if our goal is to avoid having sad kids.

Winston Churchill was, arguably, the greatest orator of the 20th century, an extraordinary politician and brilliant author. That Churchill lost an election for Prime Minister after he basically won the Second World War has always been a befuddlement to me. What I do understand is that Churchill suffered from depression. As did Samuel Johnson. As did any number of other supremely proficient folks. Johnson wrote an entire dictionary by himself. John Von Neumann who worked on the Manhattan Project and could multiply eight-digit numbers together in his head when he was in elementary school felt he could have done more given his ability. Feeling like you haven’t accomplished enough in your life may not be in the same room as depression, but it’s right down the hall.

How our children do in the classroom, on the athletic field, and in the lunchroom, is distinct from how they feel about themselves. What they know and how they feel about what they know are two sides of a completely different coin.

Moms and dads frequently say that their ultimate parenting goal is for their children to be happy. Self-actualized, confident, and content are useful synonyms. Less often parents suggest that their primary focus is on their children getting an A in middle school math. These outcomes—doing well and feeling good about it—are hardly mutually exclusive. One step in increasing the likelihood that our children feel good about themselves is helping them to have friends. Unless there are exigent circumstnaces–mean, bullying girls–nobody wants to eat lunch alone. Remembering a pencil so that our kids can do well in math involves keeping our eyes open for the “why” underneath the behavior.

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