A Gift: Struggles & School

By this point in the school year, patterns and some struggles have likely started to make themselves known to kids and parents. This is a great opportunity and choice-point for us as adults to foster true learning and genuinely help our children in the long-term!

When kids come home with a struggle in school, turn that struggle into a gift with two simple steps: 1)resist the urge to talk a lot about the problem and 2)ask the simple, truly empathic question: “What do YOU think you’re going to do?” Most kids will respond with, “I don’t know.” This is our shot to really help: offer no solutions at first and let the kid continue to struggle with their situation and school experience.

Wait, what did he just say…DO NOTHING?!! Yes, that is correct--do nothing right away. I’m guessing this is hard because you love your kids (!!) and have been properly indoctrinated to preach the “value of education” 😉 Education IS important but I guess it’s not the same thing as school, at least not as we often think about it on a macro level. 20 years’ working with kids and families in schools taught at least one thing above all else: school performance is reflective of basic needs that are met or not met. Among the most important of our human needs are competence, control, and agency. In other words, “I can do things under my own choice that are for me!” This is another powerful choice-point of ownership surrounding school--remember, it is your child who is having a school experience, not you! This gives us a chance as parents (and teachers!) to run some experiments when the price tag is affordable in youth.

If you’re curious, run a little experiment: step back from the problem and hand the struggle to your kid with a loving, power message such as, “Well, if anyone can figure something like this out—it’s you!” and then leave your kid alone. Yep—say no more in the short term and step back from their situation and their possible consequences. If they’re emotionally struggling with the situation, provide sincere empathy to the best of your ability. Often times words get in the way of true empathy for me. Make it clear through a consistent practice of empathy that your love and affection are rock solid and have absolutely nothing to do with school performance nor outcomes! Above all else: don’t offer possible solutions or ideas, YET.

To a lot of us, that step back seems cold since I had a chance to run interference or “help” the kid now. The problem here is one of ownership. The problem isn’t that my intention is bad—in fact, our best intentions can sometimes cause even more lasting suffering despite “solving” the short-term problem.

If they haven’t acted or engaged with the problem in a couple weeks, circle back ‘round and check in when two key conditions are present: adult and child are calm and there is no active conflict. At this point we can now more safely act: 1)ask how the situation is going, 2)actually stop talking and listen if the child will share, and 3)ask if we can share some thoughts or ideas. If they say no, we stop talking and do NOT offer anything more right now. If they leave the door open with, “whatever,” or, “I guess” I get a golden ticket to share a couple thoughts on what they might do in a given situation. “Some kids try… How would that work?” then, “Some kids choose to…How would that work?” And just like before, let go of the problem as best you can by handing it back with a message of power, “Hope it goes well!” This is usually a good time to physically separate to lessen the chance of adult mouth continuing to spew unsolicited advice.

Solving problems for my kids IS an option—it’s even a viable, if not healthy, option for most of the time kids are in our homes during childhood. For most of us, it doesn’t feel good to leave a problem open with our kids—we want to maximize the fleeting time we have with them in childhood to give their best shot, correct? But there’s trouble in my short-term thinking here. It’s possible that trouble lies down life’s road when I’m not there to run interference and think for kids. Trouble might be down life’s road in adolescence when I am not with them all the time as they navigate the reality of a world that guarantees one thing with absolute certainty: choice and consequence! There will be suffering, but we get to give a lasting gift that helps us raise kids who see the reality of suffering and meet it with an ability to cope with their choices and consequences.