‘Math Sucks!’ Teaching Your Kids Not to Give Up in School

Parenting expert Annie Fox offers insights on how parents can instill persistence, grit, and determination.
Getting your kids to do homework is not always easy. Here are some tips on teaching them persistence and determination. (Photo: Akiko Aoki)
Nov 8, 2012

Each week parenting expert Annie Fox will share her wit and wisdom for teaching kids to be good people and strong learners.

Have you ever seen your actual parenting job description? In the fine print at the bottom of your child’s birth certificate, it says: “You must teach this infant how to become a confident, ethical, independent, fully functioning young adult. You’ve got 18 years. Your time starts now.”

While not all teachers are parents, all parents are teachers. The kids are students. The curriculum is Life. That’s the gig.

Fortunately, there’s no single right way to guide a child into adulthood. But there are plenty of wrong ways. Like this idea, which came from a parent I once knew, “Never let your child cry.” Or this equally misguided variation on the same theme: “Never say ‘no’ to your child.”

More: ‘I Don’t Want to Go to School!’ How to Help Kids With School Anxiety

When I ask parents to name their number one long-term parenting objective, they typically say, “I want my kid to be happy.” It’s an understandable sentiment. Parents adore their children and everyone loves seeing kids happily being kids. Watching them can make us feel as if we’ve got their childhood under control and are keeping unpleasantness at bay.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with eating ice cream and hanging out in the sunshine, but it’s not possible to be happy all the time. And who says that’s even a goal worth aiming for? Who says ensuring a child’s constant happiness is the best way to parent?

If we examine the essential role of parents (and teachers), and we look beyond the goal of “happiness,” most adults who live and work with children are likely to say that they want kids to be “successful.” Success means different things to different people. However, we can probably agree that one measure of success involves the ability to meet challenges with a measure of confidence and solid problem-solving capabilities. It also includes the quality of resilience, i.e., the ability to rebound from setbacks, take what you’ve learned, and move forward.

Keeping the goal of “success” in mind, I believe that we do our most effective parenting/teaching when we step back (little by little each year), allowing our sons and daughters to lose their balance, experience toppling over, falling on their metaphorical faces, and then dealing with the aftermath.

Feedback, encouragement and plenty of opportunity to get up and try again results in empowerment and progress on the road to independence.

Are you uncomfortable with the thought of letting your child fail (even temporarily)? If so, take some slow deep breaths and think about it this way: Repeated mistakes while learning to walk, talk, speak up for oneself in a friendship, manage distressing emotions, etc. help us become proficient. Feedback, encouragement and plenty of opportunity to get up and try again results in empowerment and progress on the road to independence.

But when our need to keep our kids “safe” becomes a compulsion to insulate them from all adversity, lest they bump into reality and become frustrated or disappointed, we run the risk of circumventing the development of persistence, determination, and something known as grit. Kids can’t develop grit when parents and teachers construct a silken buffer between them and the world. Kids need to rub up against the sandpaper that is life; otherwise, they won’t toughen up and learn what it takes to persist through adversity.

Our notion of childhood as a time when we must, at all cost, support and nurture our kids in the direction of fun is neither supportive nor nurturing. Of course kids benefit from birthday presents, special treats, and wonderful surprises, but they also benefit from their struggles through academic, physical, and social challenges. Some adversity turns out to be a good thing. When we consistently step in and do for them what they should be doing for themselves, we are over-functioning. Loving yet over-functioning parents tend to raise under-functioning kids. That isn’t love and it isn’t effective parenting. More to the point, that’s not your job description!

I’ll be talking more about grit and persistence in the weeks to come. For now, I’d love to hear your comments.

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