Monday, May 05, 2014

Giving kids space can lead to confidence

From Saturday's Briefing:

So much of parenting is balancing theory with reality.
Within weeks of verifying I was pregnant with our first child, I gathered every book deemed relevant and acceptable. I set aside novels for nonfiction, and I dived into pregnancy and baby-care manuals.
I formulated all kinds of plans for the birth, for feeding and sleeping, and for introducing music and books at a young age.
From that very first birthday, theory was thrown out in favor of reality. Cooper was more than 9 pounds when he was born, and his birth required two anesthesiologists and multiple use of forceps — never a part of our plan.
Ever since, I’ve been balancing as all parents do — making decisions with background knowledge and adjusting as dictated by real-time conditions, whims and moods.
I know without a doubt that my children are totally capable of doing their own schoolwork and projects without my advice or assistance. I know that when they do the work by themselves, they gain confidence and build their sense of self-worth.
I know that teachers want to see what their students know, not what their students’ parents know.
And yet, in reality, sometimes it’s difficult to step away, to stay quiet when there’s errant punctuation or a forgotten digit. It’s easy to rationalize that stepping in with advice or strong suggestions is simply a sign of support. It’s more difficult to evaluate my motives and words, to stop myself from stepping in where I’m neither needed nor invited.
Katie has completed two orbital studies this year (a fancy way of saying extra-credit projects). Her first study focused on anthropologist Jane Goodall, and I mostly stayed clear.
She gathered books, read selections on her own and wrote her own report. When she was considering how to put her poster together, though, I tossed aside worries about interference and chimed in.
I “consulted” on the layout and design. I offered advice on where to place her headline, drawing and facts. There was what I considered an awkward gap, so I suggested she write a poem about Goodall to fill it in.
She took and followed all of my unsolicited advice without complaint. The final poster was tasteful and polished.
But what message did I send? Were my suggestions subtly telling Katie that her ideas, her creativity, her work wasn’t good enough?
On the next project, I assumed a role of complete silence.
Katie chose to study the Canada lynx. Again, she conducted her own research.
She wrote and edited her own paper (punctuated by a plea for humans to take care of the earth and animals like the lynx).
This time, the presentation was 100 percent her own. I saw nothing — not a rough draft or a sketch of the diorama — until she was finished. Not once did she seek my help or ask for my approval. She didn’t run out of her room and ask, “Do you like this?” or “Do you think this is OK?”
She gathered everything she needed from odds and ends around the house and her vast collection of art supplies.
She laid white paper on the bottom of a shoebox to re-create snow, then added a few paper snowballs here and there. She used blue clay and strips of pink paper to represent a northern sky at sunset. Green clay became an evergreen tree.
She sculpted the lynx from white clay mixed with gray. The giant wild cat was stalking a snowshoe hare fashioned from Styrofoam.
Now this was the work — the slightly messy, completely authentic work — of an 8-year-old.
As she gingerly carried the diorama to the car Tuesday morning, she told me, “I like my work on the lynx a little better than on Jane Goodall.”
In theory, those are the words I’ll remember for every other assignment that comes home. I’ll work on making it reality.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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