How to get kids to do their homework?
Last night a mother told me that one of the most important things I taught her was: “Don’t get mad; get even.”
“Really?” I replied. (I mean, that doesn’t sound very professional.)
“Yes,” she said. “It’s my mantra. I say it to myself all the time.”
“Like yesterday, Brian [age 6] said he wasn’t going to do his homework.
My first feeling was fear, then anger. It made me mad. I almost got into it with him, but by the end of the argument he would have proven to me that indeed he DOES have the power NOT to do his homework. Then I saw that he was just doing this to push my buttons.
“So, I said to myself ‘Don’t get mad, get even,’ and said to Brian, ‘Well, if that is your decision, that is your business. But of course you will have to tell Ms. Golden. She is the one who gave you the assignment, not me. I’ll go into the classroom with you, in case you want some help telling her.’ Half an hour later I saw him sitting at the kitchen table doing his homework.”
Whoever started using the word “mad” for the feeling of anger was definitely on to something. Certainly, anger is so often a legitimate feeling, and kids can make you angry. In fact if it doesn’t make you angry when they hurt someone, or refuse to do what you ask them to do, or commit some other irresponsible, disrespectful act, you are insensitive to some core human trespasses. lf things like that don’t make you angry, then you shouldn’t be parenting or teaching. However, it is mad (I mean crazy) to react with anger. Better to run feelings through other parts of the brain before acting.
A litter of puppies is nursing at their mother’s teats when one of them uses its teeth. What does the mother do? Her head instantly whips around from its calm, peaceful state, and snaps at the offender. Offenses need to be corrected as decisively as possible.
But human puppies are more complex and for best results they require a more complex reaction process. Snapping at children like a dog with her puppies is O.K., and at the same time not O.K. It is O.K. in that it delivers a message. It is not O.K. in that it has negative side effects, and often doesn’t make a change in the behavior–just a dent in the relationship. An adult would want to apologize for reacting in anger. (This is what essay 31 in the book The Genius in Children is all about.)
Back when Brian was two and working on developing his own authority, he began challenging his mother’s authority. His mother got mad. Soon Brian could be counted on to do the very thing that made his mother mad. Next to the choice he was making, his Mom’s anger was the most interesting thing going on. Thus Brian learned the game of “Make Mommy Mad.”
But then Brian’s mom decided to work smarter not harder and started problem-solving. She practiced the creative process of translating her anger into effective action. It felt like trying to outsmart him–often trying to transfer back to Brian the effect of his actions. Four years later, like most of us, she is still learning the art of letting the consequences do the talking.
Learning how to translate anger into effective action is actually a lifelong process. But if emotional control is something we want to teach our children, first we must teach ourselves. One of the blessings of children is that they will teach us. We had better learn their lessons.