Parents are afraid that if their child is not doing well in school, that they will not succeed in life. Kid hasn’t made friends in the first week of first grade? She’ll end up a loner. Doesn’t get fifth grade math? He’ll never get into college. Can’t make the grade? She’s doomed to failure, he’ll be a loser. We know these thoughts are ridiculous, but they’re still so hard to shake.
Let me tell you about my oldest son. In elementary school, he forgot his lunch every day. He forgot his backpack almost every day, and he didn’t do his homework. I was worried! How is this kid ever going to make a living if he can’t even remember his lunch?
In high school he started wrestling and became the wrestling champ. He was not the fittest or the biggest, but he worked the hardest. He went on to the state championships, and then to his college wrestling team. But apart from wrestling, he wanted to drop out of college because he thought it was a waste of time. He still didn’t do his homework—but he was old enough to get his own lunch.
I tell you this story so you can see that when something was important to him, he could be totally focused and accomplish big things. He is now an entrepreneur and has two very successful businesses that he started all on his own.
What’s the lesson here? When something is important to someone, they give it everything they’ve got. If you can find out what is important and meaningful to your child, you can use that as a portal to build his or her competence and confidence.
What I also need to tell you is that even though he hated school, this kid was always loaded with personal confidence. Without confidence, no amount of studying will lead to success. My son tells me that I gave him false confidence, which led to real confidence. How did I do this? Let me share my strategies.
I always tried to structure his environment so he could succeed. I wanted him to experience that he was smart and capable. For example, if I was teaching him something, I always broke it down into very small bits and made sure he mastered each one. If I was teaching him the alphabet, I would just start with the letter A. We would color it, play hide and seek with it, stand on it—anything to make it fun. The next day, we would review A and add B. The next day we reviewed A and B and added C. This whole process was usually not more than just a few minutes at a time. Easy peasy, anybody could do it. There was no stress, no pressure and no failing. If things got too difficult, I would take it down a notch. He always felt capable.
When I was in fourth grade, the teacher taught long division all in one session. I was totally overwhelmed, so I checked out. For the rest of my life, I felt that I was not good at math. It’s so important to teach one step at a time and make sure they get it down cold. If you miss one step, everything after will be fuzzy and it will be stressful. If a person feels overwhelmed, their mind shuts down and they cannot think. Imagine a deer in the headlights; it’s the same thing.
It’s also important to teach to your child’s strengths. Someone I was working with had a very smart kid who was doing poorly in math. The mom was a natural at math and had trouble teaching her son because what was so easy for her was daunting for him. We knew that he was a very strong visual learner, so his mom made a giant paper ruler that went all around his room, from 0 to 100. He could see that 20 was twice as much as ten. He could see that 19 was one less than 20. He could see that 10 x 10 was 100. By teaching to his strength, the kid went up three years of math in about four months. It was incredible.
Lastly, be on the alert to see if there is something going on with your child that does not feel right. I cannot tell you how many parents ignore clear signs because they are embarrassed or ashamed. If your kid has a learning glitch or a personality issue, you will see that they are struggling—and there is so much you can do when the child is young. It’s like getting help for a tree when it is still growing: you can totally change the trajectory of the tree! But if you do not get help when they are growing, it is infinitely more difficult to make changes.
1) Be on the alert to see if something doesn’t feel right. Don’t bury it—it’s much better to address it early.
2) Teach to the child’s strengths.
3) Teach in tiny increments so the child can succeed.
4) Make them feel like a winner!
The bottom line is that if your child never develops a sense of confidence and competence, they will not succeed in life. Be relentless in finding their areas of competence, and build on them until you have a confident child ready to take on the world.
Jewel Safren is an LCSW with decades of experience helping her clients get to the root cause of their emotional struggles while maintaining stability in their personal lives. Jewel lives in Fairlawn, NJ, with her husband, and uses her frequent flyer miles to visit her four kids and three grandkids (and one on the way!). You can contact Jewel at (973) 464-8556 or [email protected]