"I never let my Schooling Interfere with my education"

My 11 year old gets so stressed out over homework and school work that he has started having anxiety attacks at night. He can’t settle into sleep as he spirals into a frenzied state. It seems that his teachers are constantly giving the class messages that they aren’t going to succeed in the older grades if they don’t buckle down now.One of the things I’m very thankful for in my own parents is their relative lack of emphasis on school work and especially on grades. They didn’t interfere with our developing a natural life-long love of learning. Mark Twain wrote “I never let my schooling interfere with my education,” and this has been my motto. My parents let us know that they had confidence in our ability to succeed academically, and that grades weren’t nearly as important as our finding life paths which would be suited to us and would enable us to exercise our creativity and make a contribution to the world. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that no one stood over us to make us do our schoolwork, all five of us children ended up in careers requiring lots of university education. And all five of us still read for pleasure.

It’s very important to make sure our children grow up loving to learn rather than being anxious about performance or hooked on doing everything perfectly. Studies have been done to see what effect extrinsic motivation (rewards such as grades or money) has on intrinsic motivation (enjoying a task because it’s interesting.) It appears that extrinsic motivation has the capacity to destroy intrinsic motivation. Little kids love to learn new things and attempt new tasks, whether it’s talking, sounding out words, walking, climbing, or helping wash the dishes. But as they become older they frequently lose their love of learning. Making learning a duty, and attaching rewards and punishments to it, have taken away their natural excitement about accomplishment. Comparison with others’ performance, as when a whole class receives grades, also serves to take away a child’s enjoyment of learning at his or her own rate. Love of learning is lifelong; love of grades interferes with it.

It appears that school learning has now become a matter of anxiety and overwhelming obligation rather than fun and accomplishment for your son. It’s important to turn this around as soon as possible. Let him know you have confidence in his ability to learn and to do the work, and that you believe it’s important that he have a personal and social life as well as do schoolwork. Let him know that you believe his grades at this level aren’t as important as him enjoying his work and feeling he’s accomplished something. Do not offer rewards for A’s or B’s, as these only encourage him to focus on the grades rather than on the learning. Express confidence that he will be able to handle the challenges before him, and offer help to make the load manageable.

Demystify for your son the requirements of higher grades. The main differences are that children have to spend somewhat longer completing their work, it may require some research, and they have to remember assignments for a longer time and organize their work so it is done by the due date. That’s all. The work isn’t actually harder. Help your son organize his study habits to cope with the new challenges. Give him a regular time and place to do his work, and teach him (if the school hasn’t done so) to make a list of assignments and their due dates. Help him figure out how long each thing will take, and which tasks he needs to do first. Don’t sit there and monitor him constantly, don’t do his work for him, and don’t lecture him. Let him make his schoolwork comfortable for him. Different children study in different ways. Some needs silence; some need music. Some need regular short breaks, others work for a long time and don’t like interruptions. Allow your son to study in the way which works best for him. But don’t let him stay up past his bedtime doing schoolwork. Make sure he starts early enough to get his work done and have some relaxation time. If there’s too much work for the time available, that’s the teacher’s problem.

When my son was ten, he came home with pages and pages of boring arithmetic problems, all of which he already knew how to do. I didn’t want him to start to hate schoolwork, so I wrote on the assignment sheet “I refuse to permit my son to do this meaningless work. Please assign him something more suitable to his abilities.” My son was shocked, but the teacher did as I asked and my son’s interest in math revived. I feel that we as parents have a responsibility to see that what our children are being taught challenges them just enough to keep them interested. If there is too much work, or it’s too monotonous, too easy, or too difficult, talk to the teacher. Chances are other children are having the same difficulty as your son.