Parents as Teachers in the Academic Achievement Race

Four Ways to Undermine Love of School

Yesterday, I saw a young mother and father in the Decatur Library leaning forward over a small table at their three-year-old daughter as she tried to put together the puzzle of an alligator with 26 green pieces A to Z. The A-piece belonged at the nose and Z at the tip of the tail. Their intensity was disturbing. They talked at her constantly as if their willpower could get their daughter to put the alphabet in order.

In the current zeitgeist, the pressure many parents feel to teach their children seems to be causing some to be both bad teachers and bad parents. Anxious that their children may fall short academically one parent actually defended her daily academic work with her four-year-old with these words: “These days if your child isn’t reading by kindergarten, he won’t succeed in school.”

Naturally a parent might be anxious in this climate, but motivation from fear usually produces bad results. Love, not fear, is the main ingredient in building self-confidence, and love looks like believing in your child as she engages in ever more complex challenges. Internal motivation is critical to her can-do attitude.

Recently, I observed a group of twelve five-year-olds in a classroom as they were being assessed for their readiness for kindergarten. Ryan was the only one of twelve students who was unable to pursue his own interests, work with others, and engage in the activities on his own. Later, in talking with his parents they proudly told me their method for preparing him for school: flash cards while he is taking his bath. No wonder when he went to class, he kept looking at the teacher for direction. In their conscientious attempt to make sure he was prepared, Ryan’s parents had inadvertently undermined his ability to do what kindergarten would require of him. Their focus on academics was ruining him as a student.

Even if education were a race to somewhere, the best way to win it would be the slow, steady and thorough building of character strength rather than trying to get a child to pass the grade level benchmarks ahead of schedule. Racing ahead to get there first to prove you’re smart (or not dumb) tends to create a dysfunctional fixed mindset rather than lasting self-confidence. Self-confidence wins the race.

Anyway, it’s not a race. As parents assume the responsibility of being their children’s first and most important educators, they shouldn’t necessarily model themselves after teachers. They will be the best educators they can be, if they focus on being great parents. In fact, I have seen many teachers who would be better educators if they took a few lessons from parents.

Children are generally happy to go to school—at least at first. They want to learn all they can learn. They want to learn to read, and by first grade they are dying for homework. We must build on that enthusiasm for learning. We can take it away by:
a) caring about it more than they do,
b) getting worried about their success,
c) making them give up play (which is a child’s right) to take on schoolwork, and
d) turning ourselves from good parents into bad pedants.

These days, parents and teachers can support each other in resisting the social pressure to get swept up in the achievement panic. They can remind each other that the education of character is education itself and that accelerating kids ultimately holds them back.

By the way, the Decatur Public Library is a beautiful space. Libraries are often a great place to come with your kids, not so much for teaching but for learning.


22 thoughts on “Parents as Teachers in the Academic Achievement Race

  1. We are the grown ups. We have to control those urges, but it does seem to me that there is a human dimension to it. My oldest daughter has a hard time not helping her sister do her homework. My youngest has to work on not helping her struggling classmates at their shared table. Maybe teaching to let other learn is a life skill useful in parenting, friendships, and mentoring.

  2. If every parent listened to your advice, the world would be a better place. Thank you for all your wisdom and understanding, Rick.

  3. Rick, this is so important and beautifully stated. I’m grateful that you’re here to help parents understand that “self-confidence wins the race,” and that it certainly doesn’t come on a flashcard! Sacrificing the self-confidence our child gains through our belief in him for a few memorized facts is not any parent’s goal, but we still do it. Why is it so hard for us to trust a child?

    As you know, I’m working with parents of infants and toddlers, hoping to help them attain this mindset from the get-go. In our classes we teach observation, which helps parents realize that an infant is actually learning a lot of immeasurable things (problem-solving, perseverence, focus, a love of learning and much, much more) while he plays independently. When we see our babies self-learning, experimenting, discovering, we are deeply inspired to trust them to continue to learn in their way and time.

    Rick, please keep delivering this invaluable message!

  4. Anonymous contribution:
    Hey, Rick – this is SO Important and SO well-said!
    I remember when all my friends in Central Park were so proud because their two yr olds knew how to count to 20 and to say the alphabet – which they learned from watching Sesame Street on TV. And I remember thinking that my son would learn the alphabet and to count at some point; but what he wasn’t learning was how to watch TV at the tender age of 2. Having confidence that one’s child is intelligent is so key. If we can just let them explore safely they will learn because they love the exploration.
    Now , as a grandmother, it will be interesting to see if I can keep that confidence and stand back and let my grown children do good parenting without putting too much pressure on their children!
    (Christopher DID learn the alphabet and to count and he even got his Ph.D – and loves what he’s doing now in DC.)

  5. Helping is a good instinct. Learning how to help so that the helping helps the other’s authority and competence and strengthens their self-reliance and self-confidence in their own powers–that is what makes a “helper” and educator, right?

  6. Hi Rick! I found you through Janet Lansbury. These are such important points that you make…all of them true in my book. I especially like how you address that parents should aspire to be good parents, rather than teachers. When children are self-motivated, they will learn. If adults take a moment to reflect on their own learning behaviors, they’ll recognize that they most enjoy things that they WANT to do, WHEN they want to do them. I remember watching my mom sew, and asking her to teach me how to sew too. She didn’t force the topic; it just came naturally. And I went on to study costume design in college! As you said, children will eventually desire to read, and it can happen naturally and easily…when they’re ready and motivated. I’m your newest fan 🙂

  7. I have said to concerned, involved parents more than once. There are many teachers in your child’s world but your child will only have you as parents. Be parents, eat, love, play…get your child a tutor if you think she/he needs more teaching.

  8. Great post, Rick! I too have seen both parents and teachers who are so caught up in teaching skills, that any enthusiasm for learning is sucked out of the entire process. Anxiety takes the place of enthusiasm, which really turns children off to learning completely. It’s really a shame.

    Thanks for getting this important conversation started, and for mentioning the one place that can light the fire of learning in people of all ages: the public library.

  9. This is a great post, Rick … but are you preaching (teaching) to the choir?

    Around here (Northern California) children who aren’t reading at a mid-1st grade level by mid-kindergarten are “failing”. I don’t even know where to start to push back against both school & parental expectations.

  10. I have very fond memories of the local branch library during my childhood. My grandfather drove me there every week, and I made a point of borrowing four books (two fiction, two non-fiction), which I always read before returning. I carried on this practice through 7th grade.

    A couple I know very well has discovered that there are wonderful dividends to be gained from letting their daughter choose her own interests. They assumed that, when she became a teen-ager, she would move to a world of her own and become somewhat estranged from the “old folks.” Surprise! Though she certainly developed her own social network and intellectual interests, she remains close to her parents, whom even her friends find “very cool.”

  11. Thank you Dad, very helpful article. The three standards that gauge a child’s readiness for kindergarten that you listed: able to pursue his own interests, work with others, and engage in the activities on his own…without looking to teacher for what to do next… as well as the reasons behind this, are SO crucial for us young parents to know. This is because, as we all know the pressure to replace play with reading and math drills in preschool and kindergarten is commonly felt.

  12. Very insightful. And I agree. However, the horror stories that friends tell of taking their child to the kindergarden interviews and being told that their 5-year-old is behind are becoming more and more common.

    My husband and I struggle with this every day with our 4-year-old. Where does encouragement stop and pushing begin? The guidelines are helpful, but with as much pressure from outside as there is, it’s hard to follow them.

    And no, my 4-year-old can’t read (much to my early reader husband’s chagrin.)

    I think I’ll pass this along.

  13. Beautifully said and so important. The push towards more “achievement” even is schools is killing kids enthusiasm for learning. It is very sad and the main reason I am moving out of teaching the early years. I just feel that 4 and a half year olds (as my daughter will be when she starts school) should be learning in a play based manner and sadly this isn’t the case anymore.

  14. Lisa, This is why you need to stay in teaching and do the job the way it is supposed to be done. Your way will help (not hinder) kids to read as soon as they can, and with no negative side effects.

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