Parenting in the Middle: Fostering Independence

Originally written as a letter to parents on September 6, 2013

My two year-old’s new favorite phrase is, “Annie do it!” That is, unless it’s a less-pleasant task such as picking up one set of toys before moving on to a new activity.  Then she’s more likely to say, “Daddy do it” or “Mommy do it.”

So begins the tension between dependence and independence. This tug-of-war in toddlerhood becomes amplified in middle school, leaving many parents with the question, “How much do I step in and how much do I let them figure it out on their own?” This question is particularly acute when it comes to schoolwork.

  • If your child comes to you frustrated by a homework assignment, how much should you help? What if s/he comes to you every night for homework support?
  • If your child leaves a science project on the kitchen table, should you bring it by the school?
  • If your child gets a less-than-stellar quiz grade, should you help him/her study for the next one?
  • If your child never shows you the work that s/he is doing, should you ask to see it?

Every child is different and every family has its own dynamics, but let me share with you what I’ve learned from two decades of working with middle school students. It boils down to this: What students need most is a chance to develop independence within a structured, supportive environment. They need the opportunity to make mistakes, grapple with challenges and grow from the difficulties that they encounter. If we step in too much, as parents, we may rob them of a rich learning opportunity.

As multiple research studies reveal, people who are afraid of making mistakes will not take the risks necessary to “get it right.” In other words, it’s okay for your child to struggle on a math problem or a Latin conjugation. They may even get frustrated. It’s part of the learning process. So what is our role as parents?

Encourage them to keep at it. Resist the temptation to jump in and edit their papers or show them a math solution. Be a source of support, without trying to solve a problem for them.

Specifically acknowledge their effort. Research shows that students who are praised for the time/energy that they put into a task are more likely to persevere than those who are simply praised for the outcome.  In other words, if your child works hard on an essay and earns a strong grade, it’s more powerful to say, “I know you spent a lot of time on that paper – looks like your hard work paid off” than it is to say, “An A!  Great job!”

Talk them through challenges – primarily by listening. If your child comes home disappointed by the performance on an assessment, listen. Ask questions. What happened? What adjustments can your child make to his/her study approach?  What support/materials does your child think s/he needs going forward?

Encourage them to seek out their teachers with questions. This year, we have built in more time for students to get extra help from teachers. So if you see your child confused about a concept, nudge him or her to seek out the teacher.  But what if your child is reluctant to approach teachers? Should you intervene directly with the teacher? You can always contact teachers when you have a concern. But my favorite e-mails about this topic read something like this, “I’ve noticed that my son has been struggling with the factoring homework the last couple of nights.  We talked about it last night, and he agreed that it might be helpful to see you for some extra help. Hopefully he’ll take the initiative to reach out to you today, but I just wanted to give you a heads up.”

Stay connected: Review your child’s progress reports. If s/he is struggling with homework completion, you can look at the online homework calendar so you have a sense of what’s coming up. And always feel free to reach out to your child’s adviser if you have academic or social concerns about your child.

In short, independence – fostered within a safe, supportive environment — is a tremendous gift we give our children. We want our children to gain the confidence to tackle challenges themselves. Middle school is a safe time to struggle, make mistakes, and find the path to success.  As teachers and parents, we are guides, we are cheerleaders, we are even disciplinarians at times – we create a safety net as they grow into independent, respectful, confident young adults.

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