Thursday, August 19, 2010

"I Can Do Hard Things"

Sitting at the kitchen table, attempting to drink a few gallons of coffee (because Insomnia is a Callous Bitch),  I heard my oldest caterwauling, "HELP! Mommy! I can't do it!"

I took another sip, braced myself, and then felt my ears melt down the sides of my head.

My son may be a masculine little dude, but he can squeal with the best of them.

I eventually walked into the bedroom. Owen was on the floor, attempting to wrestle out of his pajama top. One arm was dangling freely, but he had managed to twist the other arm into a straitjacket-worthy knot.  His face was red, and he had clearly shut down. 

I attempted to walk him through the motions of taking off his shirt. I would like to say that I had the patience of an occupational therapist, or the empathy of a preschool teacher, but I didn't. My voice cut through the room as I groaned, "Just bend your elbow, Owen! You're making this harder than it is!"

Naturally, this only added to his perceived stress, and he responded, "This is TOO HARD!"

I heard my mother's voice come out of my mouth and I said, "Sweetie. You can do hard things."

I've been doing some editing work recently which discusses self-efficacy, which is the belief that one is capable--that one can do hard things. Although the work in question involved teaching and education, I naturally transferred the information to my present situation.

How do I make efficacious children? How do I teach my sons that they can do hard things?

This is not the same thing as the "everybody gets a trophy" mentality of self-esteem. When people have high self-efficacy, they believe in their capabilities, because they have experienced success. Success, thus, builds success.

If I do not help create efficacious children, I have not done my job as a parent. I feel that strongly about it.

As a child, I was classified as "gifted" and placed in special programs for reading and language. Now that I've been a teacher, I recognize that I was probably not gifted at all, just verbal.

Nevertheless, I was taught from an early age that I was smart and capable and special. I could do hard things without even trying.

So, not surprisingly, the first time I had to try anything, I had no coping skills. I remember as clear as day, sitting in math class. The teacher was explaining a concept and as she talked, I felt my heart race, my palms grow sweaty---all of the classic signs of panic. I sat at my desk, rubbing my eraser back and forth along the desk until it was nothing but rubbery ash.

Tears pricked my eyes. "Stupid," I mumbled to myself. "This is stupid. I hate math."

This belief stayed with me for about thirty years. It shaped my career pathway, and my life choices. Just the other day, I turned down a part-time job teaching GED classes, because I didn't feel confident enough to teach basic algebra.

The fact of the matter is, I never was successful at math because I didn't believe I could do it.

I didn't even try.

I needed to be taught how to try hard things. 

When I see the boys retreat into learned helplessness or rage at me in frustration, I need to remember that self-efficacy is nurtured, not assumed. I did some research, and I am going to try to develop self-efficacy in the following ways:

Provide Kids with Reasonable Responsibilities

The boys are fully capable of picking up their toys, putting their dirty clothes in the washing machine, and clearing their plates. I hold them to it.

When my oldest wants to earn extra money, I have him vacuum the carpet or mop my floor. He also shakes out rugs, dusts, and cleans the sliding glass door.

I'll hire him out for the right price.

Model Problem-Solving

When learned helplessness rears its ugly head, I sit with them and break the tasks down into steps. Admittedly, I get testy more often than I should, as demonstrated by the Great Shirt Freakoutgate of This Morning. 

Yet, more often than not, I resist the urge to do the hard things for my kids, and I try to model ways that they can solve their problems.

I encourage  them to ask for their own ketchup at restaurants. I ask them how they will wash their hands in public restrooms when they can't reach the sink.

I hope I keep this resolve when it comes to the science fair projects and three-dimensional dioramas in their future.

Allow Kids to Make Decisions

I firmly believe that you don't let kids make all the decisions. The boys eat what I make them, or they don't eat. We don't discuss going the gym, because my need to run is more important than their need to make a six-foot Lego tower. However, we do include the boys in low-stake decision making. Do you want a grilled cheese or macaroni? Do you want to wear your Crocs or your shoes? Do you want to go up the stairs right side up or upside down?

Right now, it's the little things. But I believe it all matters.


blueviolet said...

This may seem odd but working variety puzzles in puzzle books helped me with that. I learned to keep trying or take a break and come back later with fresh perspective and try again. I developed an "I can do this" attitude and it has served me well in life. (In particular, logic puzzles were of HUGE benefit.)

Grimmgirl said...

This long post was completely worth my reading time -- it's an important topic, and I think we all struggle with it. I know I need to do more to challenge my boys to do things for themselves. My eldest is way above level in reading and math, but his social skills need a lot of work. I know I need to encourage him to work through his own traumas with the neighborhood kids and stop mopping up after him. I was planning on writing about that later today!

adrienzgirl said...

I can identify with this. I was never challenged in school. Everything was easy. You know, until it wasn't. I had never, ever learned to study. What was that about? In HS when I was dual enrolled and taking AP courses and teachers started just lecturing I struggled and it was HARD for me. Not so much for my class mates who had always required those skills.

This post was very interesting Nanc!

Dina @ 4 Lettre Words said...

We start the boys doing chores early (without much expectation, but plenty of encouragement) and it makes a world of difference. Sam seldom asks for help without trying things a few times on his own.

LOVE this post!

shortmama said...

I was the same in school, things came easy to me. It was hard at first when my oldest daughter began school because while reading and writing came easy to her, math did not. I would lose patience at first but I was quick to learn that I needed to just encourage her. It wasnt that she didnt know how to do was that she wasnt confident in it, she always doubted if she had the right answer when she usually did. Now in third grade she says Math is her favorite subject, even though it is the one she sometimes still struggles with.

Minivan Lover said...

This is one of my top 5 favs of your posts. It's so hard to step back sometimes and let them figure it out- whatever "it" is. How do you go about washing your hands when you can't reach the sink?

Aunt of 14 said...

OH so good, I liked this post. I remember when I was much younger. I was encouraged when I did something good, but when I was given something challenging, with no help... I would think this is too hard and nobody corrected me.

I like your method. Let the boys know they CAN do hard things... that it is more rewarding when you can accomplish harder than usual things.

HAH, if I lived closer, I'd hire Owen to shake out my rugs!! :)

Coby said...

I can so identify with having the melt-down when I had to actually TRY something - and wonder of wonders, it was at math, and I always assumed I was never good at it, and it DID shape my life choices. I certainly don't want to pass this on to my children!

The boys' big thing right now is peeing by themselves and getting dressed on their own. Jonathan's idea of "trying" to pull his pants up is grabbing them, giving them a quick tug which accomplishes nothing, then crying and saying it's too hard. I make him try again and again until he gets it.

I think the first time that I really learned I could do hard things was when Hubby was in Iraq. At first I didn't think I could stand the separation, but then I learned that you just put one foot in front of the other and keep going until you reach the end of that particular journey.

Mel said...

If this post was long, it didn't read that way. Where were you years ago when I really needed this advice? Oh well, it's never too late.

My kids waffle between "I do it my by self" from their defiant toddler years and the current whatever is hard sucks mode that teenagers fall into. I'm trying to teach my birdies to flap their wings and do and think for themselves, especially where talking to other humans comes into play, but it is not an easy path.

They will be throwing their dirties in the machine instead of the basket starting right now. (Please, please, no reds with the whites!!)

Thanks for another great post.

Caution Flag said...

Get your textbook/self-help writing project moving because I want to buy a copy! I agree agree agree with you. Just this morning I was trying to explain to someone how mature verbal skills will almost always be found in the teacher's pet in almost any classroom. Those verbal skills are invaluable when combined with a good mind. And success certainly begets success.

The Ninja said...

I think this is a fantastic post. Here's the thing for me...when they are melting down it is just so irritating, that I can't stand the whine for another second, so I lose it every single time.

Ms. Moon said...

I don't think I really learned I could do hard things until I had my first baby. I COULD do hard things before then but I didn't believe it.

Anonymous said...

We were just talking about this very thing in our professional development at school the other day. I would say you could add Praise Their Efforts instead of their "intelligence" or "abilities." It's kinda like how you learned not to try if it didn't come easy to you... you had been labeled "smart" and didn't want to try something and fail or experience that learning curve and have something not be easy for you. If we praise their efforts when they succeed, then they attribute their successes to their efforts instead of their innate abilities.

Great post!

Daffy said...

This makes SO much sense and I definitely identify with your math experience. I find myself feeling proud that I'm already putting into practice some of the steps you talked about and you've given me much to ponder on how to approach future lessons as little Duck grows. I most assuredly want to read more!!

MiMi said...

This is a fantastic post!
My oldest always thinks he can't do something because he's just not confident in it.
As parents, my husband and I realized last year what he needed most was a cheerleader and someone to explain it to him in terms he could understand.
So finishing the first grade he came out the farthest in his math.
He was supposed to do 1-9 adding and subtracting.
He passed subtracting and went to multiplication and then division. He just needed the confidence.

Sonya said...

Excellent post as always. My youngest has alot of challenges and no matter how much I tell him he can do things,he never believes me. I praise like crazy but his self esteem is shot and I have no clue as to why.

Erin said...

Please forgive my French, Nancy, but another fucking incredible post. You blow me away.

I worry that I'm setting my kids up for failure. I don't know. I need an unbiased person to come to my house and evaluate the mess I've created. I'll buy your plane ticket????

You are so relatable. And I've no doubt you ARE gifted. But tears pricked MY eyes when you described the math. I'm awful at it. I squeaked through college algebra w/ a D and was so mortified.

When I was in grade school (2nd grade), my teachers had a conference and for reading classes I was told to go to the 5th grade classroom. So every morning around 10 a.m., I snuck out, red-faced, and went to a world where I didn't have to feel exasperated with the kids who could barely sound out 4-letter words and took forever to get through a sentence. I was using my piddly allowance to buy books at B. Dalton every weekend. I have always loved reading/writing.

I've gone off on a tangent. Oopsie.

Ash said...

I need to read this post every single morning. Being an anal perfectionist (redundant?), I have a tendency of just doing it myself because it's easier.

Bad, bad mama.

One of my most proud mama moments? Watching Youngest (4) seperate his laundry into the correct hampers at night - white vs. color. Hubs taught him that :-)

I'll do better today, I promise.

Debbie said...

Oooooh, what a great post. And today's parents are so quick to jump in and solve all of life's problems - these kids will never learn that they are capable.

Eternal Lizdom said...

Great, great post.

Have you read anything by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller? If not, please do. The 10 Commitments is a great place to start. Google Chick Moorman- great articles on his website about how our language helps or hurts kids when it comes to self responsibility.

Also, last night, I read the classic "The Little Engine That Could" to my kids. And it was a great and simple lesson. So I recommend that as reading for kids!

Elise said...

I love this post, thank you. I posted about it over on my blog if you'd like to take a look.

Bekah said...

This is SO my oldest daughter. Few coping skills when things get tough. In my job, we are taught to use "reflection" questions with the parents we are coaching, to help them solve their own problems, come up with options, etc. It's really working well with my own kid. Great post, thanks.

Bekah said...

This is SO my oldest daughter. Few coping skills when things get tough. In my job, we are taught to use "reflection" questions with the parents we are coaching, to help them solve their own problems, come up with options, etc. It's really working well with my own kid. Great post, thanks.

only a movie said...

Great post.
I'd have a lot of commentary and add to the discussion (because i'm with you on this topic0, but I'm still on summer vacation and don't have to talk about this stuff for 2 more weeks yet.
But this is a great post.

Tracie said...

Funny. I had a conversation with my son's gifted teacher about this topic. She says that it's crucial for them to do hard things early on so they learn those coping skills.

Traci said...

We're working on that in our home, as well. It's not easy for me -- sometimes I want to just fix it. It takes more patience (sometimes in short supply) but you are right, it is the right thing for them and us in th e long run!

StarTraci said...

I had to comment again because I can NOT tell you how often I have said, "You can do hard things" this last week. It is my new favorite phrase. That and "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit!"