Monday, April 11, 2011

Parents can make a major impact on children’s education

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 9/15/2007

This is second in a series of five essays about simple things individuals can do to improve our social institutions. A social institution is a framework for solving societal problems. All societies must solve the same problems, but they do it differently. They must tie adult responsibility to children (marriage and family), socialize children into productive roles (education), solve the problem of order and leadership (politics), justify societal practices as “good” (religion), and produce and distribute needed goods and services (economy). My suggestions are not about changing our institutions as much as making the current ones, as currently defined, work a little better. Today’s focus is on education.

Pick up any newspaper, check any news Web site, listen to any presidential candidate today and the subject of education comes up. Indeed, since the publication of “A Nation at Risk” by the Reagan Administration, there has been much attention, and some reforms, to education. But far less attention is given the role, and arguably, the more important role, that parents and adults who engage with kids outside the formal classroom and formal activities like scouting, sports, church, and others, play in educating our children. The ongoing debate today is about education policy. What can parents and individuals do to improve education in America? Here are 10 simple steps individuals, especially parents, can do.

1. Expand active learning beyond the classroom; make the world everything about learning. Young kids are pretty much natural learners. They are curious and eager to learn and experience their environments. Formal schooling and our hectic lives today manage to drum that natural curiosity and natural active learning out and we replace it with passive learning, which is boring and not easy to reverse. So, when you’re with your kids, whether your own, or others, turn activities into learning experiences. Let kids explore stores (with you in tow), stop and let them be fascinated by what has become common to you. Just this morning, I was driving out on a country road that was being repaved. The young Amish kids who were lined up on the side of the road were fascinated by the machinery. How many of your 10-year-olds would be captivated by such a sight? Why not?

2. Read to your kids; have them read to you. Reading is the primary academic skill. Without it, there is virtually no chance for academic success. Begin reading to your kids immediately. Not only will reading to them demonstrate that you value the skill, but later, they can read to you. Often this activity diminishes greatly once formal schooling begins, but there is no reason more complex books can’t be read, too. On long car trips, have kids read a long novel out loud for everyone’s enjoyment.

3. Make at least half of your purchases for birthdays, Christmas, all the ritual gift giving times, “educational” toys. This is easier for younger kids and will set a tone for the future. Educational toys are not boring. For young kids, flexible toys that let them use their imagination like clay, paints, and building blocks, are terrific. Later on, Legos, books, and puzzles develop problem solving skills which are the main thing that needs to be taught. Our schools are great at teaching facts, but not as good at teaching problem-solving skills. In junior high, buy your kid a computer program to learn a foreign language.

4. Talk to your kids; not at them, but with them. I’ve observed some parents talk more with their dogs and cats than they do with their young kids. Engage them in conversation, the earlier the better. Language skills are the most crucial skill we need in the U.S. Who would you rather your kids learn to communicate from? Skilled communicators like yourself or from their peers, with poor grammar and limited vocabularies?

5. Turn car trips into field trips, don’t plug in a tape for the kids to watch. A zooming car is super stimulation, but the kids need to be taught to observe. The old games of car bingo or car scavenger hunts are more brain-active than brain-passive activities such as listening to music or watching DVDs. The DVDs are often more for the convenience of the adults along, turning over their roles as teachers to entertainment technology. Point things out as you drive along. Most of us now live in suburbs and kids don’t ride bikes as much, so keeping them active in the car observing is a good way for them to learn their surroundings. And while I have no evidence for it, I’ll bet it makes better drivers of them, too.

6. Make kids do it themselves. Whether it be ordering from a menu, asking for something at a store, even if it is faster and easier to do it yourself, make your kids do it themselves. This begins teaching them independence as well as communicating to them that they have a voice and worth. Having others, whether they be waitstaff, teachers, clerks, whomever, listen to kids, communicates to kids that they are a person of worth. And the kids will feel a real sense of accomplishment when they do it themselves, which is what self-esteem should be based upon.

7. Be a partner, not an adversary, with kids’ teachers, coaches, etc. This means at the outset trusting that the teacher, coach, adult leader, knows what they are doing, and work from there. Whatever you think of the institution of education, the individuals in those institutions are not perfect replicas of it. Ask what you can do at home to help support what is going on in the classroom. You’ll find that it is a two way street; you can get support in the classroom for things you are trying to accomplish at home, too.

8. Telling kids is one thing; modeling the behavior is another (and more impressing). If you don’t want your kid to yell, don’t yell yourself. Young kids don’t have sophisticated moral reasoning, so the line “do what I say, not what I do” makes little sense to children. They are pretty black-and-white about things. That means, if you really value education, then you need to show it with your behavior. Be active in your kids’ formal education, go to open houses, show up for stuff at school. It also means if you want your kid to read, you need to read yourself. It doesn’t have to be heavy intellectual stuff, it can be trash novels or tabloids. What is important is the act of reading. Once they value reading, they’ll find the material they enjoy, which is virtually limitless and cheap to obtain. At the same time, if you want honest kids, don’t lie, especially in situations like when your kids answer the phone and the caller asks for you and you tell them to tell the person you are not home. What message is that sending?

9. Eat (at least) one meal a day together. During this meal, ask kids about their days and make them speak about it, but the same goes for you, too. Kids will emulate you. If in response to “How was your day, dear?” your answer is “Same old same old,” your kids will learn to do same. One the other hand, if you tell about your day, no matter how routine, something about it, they will do the same. Ask what they learned at school during dinner and don’t accept “nothing” as an acceptable answer

10. Let kids suffer the consequences of their actions. This is probably the hardest one for parents because we have developed the idea that good parents are ones whose kids are happy. But sometimes learning is about “suffering the consequences” of one’s actions. If your kid fails to do their homework, don’t defend her to their teachers. If he gets in trouble for behavior at school, by reflexively defending him, taking an attitude that “no one treats my kid that way,” kids learn they are above all rules, all laws. Sometimes the best lessons are about survival, adaptation, persistence and perseverance.

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