- Teaching self-control with marshmallows
The nature vs. nurture debate ended for me pretty soon after the birth of my second child.
Totally different from the moment they entered the world, my two daughters are case in point that who you are, in large part, is a genetic crapshoot and has largely nothing to do with the parenting you receive -- unless you are chained to radiators and beaten with brooms on a regular basis. You know what I mean.
This is illustrated in my daughters by the simple difference in their answer to a question asked millions of times each day across the planet:
"How was school today?" I ask.
Daughter #1 answers: "Mmmf." (I've learned over time this is a vague approximation of the word "fine," but really means something like: "Leave me alone and get me a snack.")
"Well, what did you do?" I grasp, knowing 99 out of a 100 times the answer will be:
So now, Daughter # 2, same scenario:
"How was school today?"
"Good! We got extra recess today, but then had to come in 'cause Joe was throwing snowballs at people."
"Why did he do that, sweetie?"
"I think he was mad at some of the kids because he felt like they weren't including him."
"That's too bad. What did you learn about?"
"How clouds work and adding big numbers...and did you know that there were Indians in Minnesota?"
Need I say more?
Neither daughter has more or less intellectual curiosity than the other. Number 1 simply keeps her own counsel a bit more. Which isn't a bad trait, but knowing when to share a teeny bit more sometimes is helpful out there in the big bad world. So here's where parenting can make a difference, I think:
We can persist.
Communicating requires some effort for both of us. Many days my questioning of #1 ended with: "Mmmf." Some days with: "Nothin'." But on my best days, I would push her further: "Tell me one thing that happened today, good or bad." Sometimes I'd get: "Lunch was yucky"; sometimes: "We learned about long division"; or: "I made a clay chicken in art."
The content of those little nuggets weren't what was important. More, it was that as I dug deeper until she told me one thing that happened at school, whether it was good, bad or innocuous, I think she got the message that her life, school experience and academic performance were important to us.
Please don't get me wrong. I'm not a perfect parent by any stretch of the imagination, nor am I a hovering helicopter-type parent (I don't have that gene). But I think my gently persistent questions (this is not an interrogation!) let her know that I listen because I care. I think this daily reinforcement is a good investment in our future relationship. Her disclosures about the mundane strengthen our bond, so when the biggies need to be talked about, we'll (hopefully) have had enough practice so we can talk seriously. And if she ever gets to the point where she routinely makes a mental note during the day, "Gee, I want to share this with mom," well, dang it, I'd love that.
Now when I ask, "How was school today?" I get a: "Fine," sometimes followed – unprompted – by a: "I have to give a speech next week about my life, and I have no idea what to say."
Well, what do you know, I think: a bit of gold. Perhaps if I ask a followup question or two, and she gets some ideas from our little talk, she will know that somebody cares about what she has to say.Now, it's your turn:
- What questions do you ask that get the best response?
- When is the best time to get your kids talking with you?
When asked what is the one, best thing parents can do to help their kids be more successful in school, my suggestion is to read to them every evening when you tuck them into bed. Anyone can do it, and the payoff is compounded over time. Yes, you will be so tired some nights they will have to nudge you to keep you awake. Yes, you'll miss some of your primetime TV. And, yes, you will read one or two of their favorite stories more than 100 times.
Make it happen anyway. Bedtime readings tell more than stories. They say, "I think you are important. I believe learning is important. And most of all, I love you."
Think of this as one of your best times to communicate with your kids -- and get them started off right academically. This bedtime reading does not have to be a performance (although that's fun). It cannot be a chore (who wants THAT?). This is the time to listen to each other (and really hear and ask questions). This is the time to settle down, and the time to engage their dreamy selves. In other words, this is a solid foundation, added to a little bit every day, that gives them skills and confidence for a great launch into school.
I'm curious about your thoughts regarding:
- What do you do if your child doesn't like bedtime stories?
- At what age are the kids too young or too old to read to at bedtime?
- What can you do if you didn't read to your kids during the early years?
Is it too late to help them?