I recently asked a group of 50 teachers: “Raise your hand if you agree that when a child comes to an adult asking for help with an academic problem, the adult should help.”
Fifty hands went up.
So then I asked, “Now raise your hand if you agree that 80 percent of the time, on average, that a child says he needs help with a problem, he does not truly need help; he has simply reached the limit of his tolerance for frustration and wants someone else to solve the problem for him.”
Fifty hands went up. By the way, I’ve done this same exercise with subsequent groups of teachers, always with the same results, proportionately speaking.
Obviously, it makes no sense that someone would agree to both statements. They are contradictory. The true statement, of course, is the second one. Therefore, adults should not be quick to help children with problems — problems of any sort, actually. Adults should not take children who say things like “I can’t,” “It’s too hard,” and “I need help” at their word. They should, more often than not, gently refuse to help. As in, “I know you can do that. You just need to think about it some more.” Or, “You’ve solved harder problems than this one. Are you feeling lazy today?” Yes, it’s perfectly OK to say even that, as “incorrect” as it may sound.
Why do today’s moms feel that raising children is an inherently stressful endeavor? The answer: For lots of reasons, one of which is that with rare exception today’s moms believe that when a child asks his mother for help, his mother should stop what she is doing and help.
The mom of 60-plus years ago was not inclined to help on demand, which is a big reason why moms of that bygone era did not complain to one another that raising children was exhausting. For example, I once asked my mother for help with a fifth-grade math problem. She looked at the problem and handed the book back to me, saying, “I figured that out when I was your age. So can you.” And that was that. My mom was very typical of 1950s moms. And by the way, it is significant that school kids in the 1950s outperformed today’s kids at every grade.
When one helps a child on demand, does the child’s tolerance for frustration go up or down? Down, of course! As such, the child begins asking for help more and more often. He begins acting less and less competent and more and more needy, helpless, and inept. He’s likely to begin saying things like “I’m stupid!” and “I can’t do anything right!” His mom is equally likely to interpret that to mean he needs even more help than she is already giving. And the situation spirals downward. And mom feels like nothing in her life has ever been so stress-filled as raising a child.
One should not give children control of words like “I need” and “I can’t.” Your children do not know what they are capable of until they are forced to push the limits of their capability and in so doing expand them. My mother understood that, as did most of her female peers.
I figured the math problem out, by the way. My mom was right about most things.