Dear Dr T.,
I enjoyed your recent JHLA column about concrete ways (diet, sleep, exercise) of helping our children be successful in school. But, honestly, it’s kind of basic. What about our attitudes and expectations, hopes and dreams? What impact, if any, do they have on our children’s success?
You are so right. Parenting is far more than the concrete, physical tasks that we perform for our children daily; it involves the parents’ attitudes and values, as well. There are many ways that our parenting style affects our children’s learning experience.
Let’s start with what we all know. To succeed, we have to want to succeed and must be willing to work hard to achieve that success. In short, for a child to do well in school, this goal has to be a priority in the family. Most people give lip service to this notion: when questioned, both parent and child alike will say that doing well in school is important. However, it is not the words that count: it is the many complex and consistent steps that a parent and a child must take in order to achieve the desired goal. And, though there are always those creative geniuses who seem to fly effortlessly through life’s tasks, most of us do need to work really hard to succeed.
The first step to school success is deceptively simple: come to school every day, on time.
Missing a day, or even part of a day, is not just a matter of the hours missed; many children become disoriented when they join the class in middle of a lesson, just as their parents might feel if they came late to an important meeting. However, even more importantly, there’s an attitude behind the absence/lateness. When there is no true need (illness, medical appointment), what is reflected is a casual attitude at best, and a subversive attitude (the school cannot tell us what to do!) at worst. Not only does this parent mindset influence the child’s attendance, but it more than likely spills over into other areas – such as homework, co-operation – as well. Making school a priority means recognizing that school is the child’s work and needs to be respected and taken seriously.
On the other hand, I do feel it’s critical to give the child some healthy space – and that is why I recommend one free mental health day per year. We all need a break. Children, like adults, do best with some choice, and school offers precious little. Ideally, our child chooses his day the night before to obviate the “I don’t want to go to school today,” syndrome. In fact, this free day may eliminate that kind of early morning grousing because it lets the child know that there is exactly one day when he does not have to go.
The free day concept encourages problem solving and delaying of gratification, as well. Even a young child can learn to save the value of a day in the bank “for later,” and can internalize the message that “You can’t have your cake and eat it,too.” I have even heard of some parents, as the end of the year draws near, who allow their child to redeem the unused free day for a sum of money. Ultimately, even if the child eventually redeems his free day for cash, the day has served its purpose: to hold out the promise of space when it is most needed.
Sometimes, it is hard to work with the school. After all, just like the rest of us, not every teacher is a star. But, effective parenting dictates that we treat staff members of our child’s school as partners, not adversaries. As in any partnership, there may be many qualities that we don’t like in our partner, but we choose to overlook them so that we can work effectively together. We parents choose the school our children attend – and despite our inevitable disappointments – we must remain supportive, available, and involved. When we challenge the school – in attitude, words, or deeds – it confuses and upsets our child. The school and his parents are the two stable authorities in his life, and when they conflict, our child has divided loyalties. He feels forced to take sides, and this emotional tug-of-war may affect his academic success and ability to “join the system.”
As mature parents, we recognize that once we have chosen a school for our child, it is in our child’s best interest to support that school and minimize any unintentional mixed messages. However, it is important to note at this point that I am not advocating the black and white “teacher is always right” approach. It is always a parent’s role to be his child’s advocate. What is crucial though is that conflict is managed with co-operation and good will: not with rancor, but with the spirit of “Let’s work it out.”
Our values, attitudes, and behaviors create a road map for our children. Let us make sure we draw one up that gets our children where they need to go.
The Book Nook: Preparing Your Child for Success is written for both parents and teachers. Its common sense approach to helping a child reach his potential makes this an invaluable guidebook. The book is written by Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, who began his distinguished career as an educator in 1986. He is the founding principal of Me’ohr Bais Yaakov Teacher’s Seminary in Jerusalem, and is a popular lecturer and consultant on education and parenting.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com