I was asked once by a parent, whose 10-year-old daughter had been struggling with math for quite some time, “How much should I help [my daughter] with her homework?” Mom and daughter would spend 2-3 hours per night studying math and weren’t seeing progress. Mom’s question is a common one and very worthy of a detailed response.
Here’s how the conversation unfolded
When mom asked the question, I looked at her for a second, turned to my left where her daughter was sitting and asked, “How does a baby bird learn how to fly without going to school?”
I saw the girl's brow furrow and lips squeeze together as she closed her eyes tightly and rested her chin on her fist. She appeared to be deep in thought, and so adorable! I thought I’d help her out.
“The baby is completely helpless when it’s born. It just sits there in its nest and waits for Mom to fly off and come back and spit some food into its mouth.” I waited for her reaction.
“The baby’s mom has to teach it.” her daughter looked up and opened her eyes.
“But how?” I asked. “She can’t tell him how to do it.”
“It watches her fly back and forth when she brings him food,” she said.
“That’s right, it watches her do it a thousand times.” I said while flapping my arms and trying not to knock over my glass of water. “And we can see baby birds flapping their wings in the nest each trying to compete for attention against its brothers and sisters. So they get to practice flapping and build up those muscles.
“But at this point, the baby is still not ready to fly. So, mom starts taking a few steps back onto a branch each time she brings her baby food. This way, the baby, driven by hunger, needs to take its first steps out of the nest. It learns to spread its wings to balance on those thin branches. Its mom slowly steps farther and farther away each time until the bird needs to flutter its wings a little to jump and push itself forward, or to spread its wings to help keep balance.
“One day the mother bird waits in a place that’s harder to reach. The baby bird struggles to get to her and falls off the branch! It lands softly in a pile of leaves on the ground.”
I turned around to look at this student’s mom, and I was glad she was smiling and following along. “Good,” I thought, “she doesn’t think I’m an insane person sitting here flapping my arms around.”
I turned back to her 10-year-old: “Why would the baby bird take such a big risk?”
“It’s hungry,” she answered perceptively.
"Yes, exactly! The food is worth the risk,” I added. “And why does the baby bird’s mom let her baby fall?”
“Because she can’t stop it from falling,” she said after a few silent seconds.
“Yes. And what does the baby bird do after it falls down? Does it just give up and accept that it can’t fly?”
This time the student was ready: “It has to try to reach its mom up in the tree again.”
“YES!” I said in celebrating the answer. “And it will hop and jump and flap its wings and fall down some more. Do you think its mom should fly down to him and bring the food?”
Again she replied with confidence. “No. If she does, her baby will never learn how to fly!”
“YES!” I exclaimed. “Every single time this bird fell, it was learning a lesson. It was testing a brand new idea or method. Each mistake this bird made was an important lesson about which techniques work and which don’t.” I paused.
“Now, some birds are too scared to step out of the safety of their nests,” I continued as I looked over to her mom. “And sometimes their moms stop bringing them food, and even push their babies out of the nest so they fall out of it!” Her daughter seemed a bit horrified at this fact.
“What these mother birds understand instinctively is that if they do something for their child that the child should be able to do for itself, the child will never be able to survive on its own.” We all take a moment to reflect on the story.
Putting things into perspective
It’s important to remind your child that you don’t expect them to know the answers to all the questions; that it’s OK to be confused or wrong; and that each mistake they make is an awesome opportunity to learn and grow.
If your child is ever upset about a difficult subject or "bad" grade, help put their situation in perspective by sharing a scary, sad, or silly story about when you were their age. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for, but they don't have a lot of hindsight. You can pass on generations of wisdom through stories and thought-provoking questions.
It’s not about how much you help, it’s about how you help
The conversation brought an important perspective into schooling and education. There is no question that children need guidance and support, but to support effectively, we must ask, “How do I help?” instead of, “How much do I help?”
Here are 5 things you can do to help your child develop independence and confidence:
1. Don't do stuff for your child they can do for themselves. Doing so will breed dependence; instead, encourage and help them to work on their own and celebrate every victory along the way.
2. Don’t punish your child for making mistakes. Instead, ask questions that help your child understand what actions led to the mistake. Ask them what they learned from the experience and what they could have done differently.
3. Always make sure your child feels safe to share their feelings. Always listen calmly and avoid passing judgment, reacting with anger, fear, or disappointment. This models the behavior that your child will mirror back to you. Remember to take a LONG PAUSE after each question to allow your child time to think about your question and about their reply.
4. Look to the future and discuss the next steps. After your child makes a mistake, ask them what would they do differently next time to avoid the mistake. This will help your child develop a growth mindset and exercise problem-solving skills.
5. Ask for help. If your child has a recurring issue that you just can't seem to fix, it's important to ask for help.
As a parent, you may not have the solution to every problem, and that's OK! Getting expert advice and support will help you fill your knowledge gaps, increase confidence, and lower your stress so that you can be a strong, resilient and confident role model for your child no matter what issues come up.