Helping Your Child Take (the right kind of) Action: Thoughts from a Parent Who Has Been There

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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interestingletterpresstypography-bdacc4644a928ad26ea6c15f3b93cdc9_hBy Melissa McQuarrie

Parenting is a challenge. You might have the most easy-going child in the world—or the most headstrong—but helping them feel confident in their abilities, dreams, and decision-making skills is never easy. On one hand, you might think a laissez-faire attitude is best, but then you worry that you are not providing adequate direction or protection. Most of us, then, err on the side of providing too much information, overwhelming our children with sage advice and hard-earned wisdom from our own lives. At some point, we’ve all see the glazed look in our child’s eyes that tells us that it’s time to stop talking.

So where’s the middle ground? What’s the right formula? At the risk of offering a NON-answer, I think that each of us has to balance the texture of a child’s personality with the desires we have for him. It is wise to know how much encouragement an individual child needs before that child will take action. A highly analytical child might need significant encouragement while your little daredevil may need to be reigned-in just a little.

As a mother of four (now) adults, I will offer a slice of our own life as an example. My dearest wish was that I would find a way for my children to attend college—to make sure that they never missed that opportunity by virtue of financial need.

My oldest son, Jack, is the responsible analytical first child. When it was time for him to make plans for college, he applied for a highly selective NROTC scholarship that paid his full tuition at a prestigious northeastern university. He went off to Massachusetts with high hopes, but it soon became apparent that the school (and the Navy) was not a good fit for him at that time. He did not want to be beholden to the rigors of the Navy during his college years and wanted to be closer to home.

Many long conversations ensued. As a mother, I wanted him to have a debt-free education…but I also wanted him to be happy. I couldn’t afford the out-of-state school without the tuition assistance, but wanted to help any way I could. It was a very grown-up decision for a nineteen year-old to make, and there was NO turning back.  We talked about opportunity cost, pros and cons, and making life-changing decisions without suffering debilitating regret if the decision was wrong. Ultimately, though, he had to make the choice and I urged him to make his decision and not to look back.

The happy outcome was that he started taking small steps—researching local colleges, visiting campuses, talking to friends. He was accepted at both of his top two choices and transferred back to Virginia his sophomore year. He never looked back and received both his undergraduate and Master’s Degrees from the University of Virginia. It was the right move for him to make, but in keeping with his style of decision making, he did thorough research and took small steps, evaluating and adjusting as he made his way through the decision-making process. My role was to spend time helping him understand opportunity cost and the lifetime impact of big decisions. With this child, my role in the ‘Act, Learn, Build’ Cycle was to support and guide the analysis that accompanied his personality style.

So two questions for reflection:
How comfortable are you with uncovering your child’s desire so you can be a mentor, a sounding board, and/or a cheerleader for his or her dreams?
How comfortable are you with your child learning from failure?

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