As a teacher, I think a lot about the idea of “productive struggle”, how it’s actually really useful for kids to experience the joy (and pain!) of solving a difficult problem, but only after banging their heads against it for a while.
But that’s my teacher hat. I am also a parent. And that’s a whole different story.
Every child is unique; they each have their own different ways of thinking, of working, of doing chores (in the messiest possible way) - and that’s great. As a mom, I know that unique kids grow into unique adults, who have unique ideas, and apply their ideas to solve problems and build the world anew. At the same time, every child has their unique struggles too. And we just ran into one of those struggles, here, in my house, around the idea of struggle itself.
My oldest child, my daughter, is doing great in school - so great, in fact, that she’s bored. She recently asked me when they would start doing “real math”. “Great,” I thought, “she needs some challenges!” And so I put my teacher hat on, and off we went. And then we ran smack into the wall! So what happened? My daughter is doing great in school, so great in fact, that she hasn’t had to struggle, at all. Which seems like a really good thing, until she ran into something that wasn’t so easy… and just didn’t know how to move forward from the point of being stuck.
If you have kids, maybe you have seen this happen in your own home. Your child is great at something - maybe schoolwork, maybe something else entirely - and then suddenly they run into a challenge that just stops them cold. Because it’s always been so easy! You know what I’m talking about here. And while you know, in the back of your mind, that struggling through that difficult problem is good, there’s still the front of your mind, the caring parent part, that’s not having it, for example, when your child looks at you and says “Well, this just isn’t possible, because I didn’t get it on the first try!” and then cries.
When my daughter really starts to struggle, my teacher hat and my parent hat become involved in their own struggle. I don't love to see my daughter frustrated, but I really truly believe in the power of learning that comes from having to struggle (so much so that this is not even the first blog post about it; see this post on persistence). At this point I am absolutely confident that she knows the content of what she needed to learn - she’s met the standards, she knows the main ideas, she has the math, the history, and the science down. But now, it’s about applying that content in a new way; it’s about something she knows but it doesn’t look familiar, and then she doesn’t know what to do immediately. So the question is, how do I teach my child to struggle? Because what she needs is to learn how be a great learner. And that is vastly harder, at least in my experience, than just learning math, science or history.
So what are we going to do? Well, here’s what I’m going to focus on with my daughter. And maybe, if what we’re talking about here is at all familiar, some of these ideas will work for you and your kids too.
I am proud that my daughter is doing great in school. But I know she can do more. It’s my job as her parent to see that in her, and to help her plan for the challenges hasn't yet faced. She’s going to face challenges at some point - we all do. I want to prepare her, by putting challenges in her path, teaching her to productively struggle, and helping see that the process of doing so is worthwhile. That way, she’s going to continue to do great in school, and at anything else she may want to put her mind to.
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