Well Intended: Trying to cope when kids fall short
It's tough not to let your kids' struggles impact how we view ourselves as parents. This was a challenging week in our little household. Teachers from both kid's schools called and emailed expressing concern over missing assignments, poor test scores and late essays. Not good.
What followed as a major academic crackdown. There were many excuses, a couple of fibs, the excavation of over-stuffed backpacks and hours spent hunched over the kitchen table in forced intellectual labor. We established a plan and a list of tasks that needed to be accomplished, and I hung over them like a warden while they typed. While they were making progress on the work, I found myself puzzled at how they had fallen behind.
Instead of considering what was motivating them, I was immediately angry with myself. I questioned my parenting skills, my lack of discipline, and the way I am raising them. And then I really let things spiral. (When you're pacing around a kitchen while your kids complete math problems, you have plenty of time to torture yourself.) What if they never get motivated and they end up spending their whole lives sitting right here at my kitchen table unable to fend for themselves in the world?
Both kids usually do fine in school. It's rare that they are both struggling at once. It was hard not to see this unified lack of scholarly success as a personal failure. But perhaps that is exactly the problem. It's not about me. I can't motivate my children. Motivation comes from within. I can model my own work ethic, my own excitement for learning and insatiable curiosity and my own problem-solving skills. I can check in with to see if there is anything I can help them with.
I can hold them accountable and remind them the importance and opportunity of an education. I can help them set goals. I can do is encourage them to put systems in place to help them get the work done that isn't compelling to them so that they can spend more time and energy doing the things they love. And then, I can respect them enough to leave them alone so that they can grow and learn in a way that makes sense to them.
In this culture of hyper-parenting, it's difficult to separate your children's behavior, habits and accomplishments from your own. As the mother of children with special needs, I tried to learn this early on. My kid was the one screaming and thrashing in the Stop & Shop checkout under the bright lights and over-stimulating aisles while the mothers of orderly children shook their heads. I needed to let go of my holiday-card fantasy of perfection and vowed to parent the wonderful and unique children I have.
I promised myself that I would do my best to support them and at the same time I would support myself, and pursue my own desires and goals so that my self-worth was not plaited with their success. We love our children so deeply; it's challenging to see them as extensions of ourselves. And, of course, it's excruciating to see them fail in any way. Failure is essential to growth. And as long as I take responsibility for their mistakes, they won't have to.
Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.