“I don’t want to disappoint you.”

Happy teenImage by Lotzman Katzman

Instead of “lazy” or “strong-willed” or “bored” or “chaotic” or “undisciplined,” it could be that your child is afraid to fail in front of you. When you ask your young learner to perform a task (anything from running the dishwasher to reciting the 8’s in the times tables to writing a paragraph about tide pools) and that child balks, rolls his eyes, wanders off to play with the toddler, or tells you she doesn’t know how…it is entirely possible that your child is not lazy or undisciplined. It could be that your child is afraid to fail in front of you; is afraid to disappoint you.

You are the larger-than-life incredible adult person (tall, grown-up voice, competent, protector, nurturer) in this littler person’s life (even a teen is a “littler” person than your full grown adultness). What every child and teen (and grown up child with parents in their 70s!) wants to hear is, “Great job. So proud of you. That’s just perfect.”

When you combine parenting with home education, the pressure to satisfy the parent ratchets way up! Now the scale of disappointment possible is tripled! Not only might your child-student fail to satisfy self, but that child worries that he or she may fail to perform in a way that satisfies mother or father. Additionally, the child-student is aware that there are ACADEMIC standards required by the state (conveyed by the parent). This is a lot of pressure (even if it is mostly felt and rarely articulated, even inside).

Home educated children have to prove to themselves every day that they are learning, that what is happening at home is equal to what their schooled peers are gaining in the brick and mortar buildings. They know it instinctively, even if they don’t say it aloud.

Instead of admitting to weakness and anxiety about living up to parental expectations, children and teens take the face-saving way out. They complain that they are bored, they under-perform (to protect their egos), they do a minimal job to “get past the awkwardness of possible failure,” they cry or stomp their feet or yell or tell the parent that the assignment or task is stupid and pointless.

These behaviors are covers for what is really going on, in many instances. If a child could risk showing her vulnerable side, she might say something like, “I hate that I don’t know what to write, right now. It makes me feel dumb. You look so disappointed in me and I hate being a disappointment. I want you to be proud of me. Maybe if I just don’t write, we can stop writing all together so I can make you proud of me in another way.”

If you can hear the subtext to the complaints and bravado, the defensiveness and listlessness—you can meet your child in the center of his or her weakness.

Perhaps when your child expresses boredom or resistance, you can focus on alleviating those feelings (rather than focusing on the battlefield of the writing project).

“Seems like writing feels hard today. I know you—when you feel comfortable with a process, you are gung ho and amazingly competent! For instance, when you (play video games, go on the Wii, train your pet rats, practice soccer, study Spanish, bake cookies, use your telescope), you tackle every challenge with a lot of energy. Since that isn’t happening with writing, I’m realizing that I have more work to do to help you feel confident in that process.

“Let me think about ways to make the experience of writing less intimidating. You can help me by giving me real feedback about what’s happening for you as you write. Let’s try again tomorrow. I’ll write too so we can explore it together. I want you to feel as smart when you write as you do with (math, science, reading, history, Shakespeare, big words, reading maps, caring for pets, organizing, gardening…).”

Then spend the rest of that day with your child finding opportunities to show your child that you are, in fact, already happy with and proud of who your child is, right now, just the way he or she is.

Drop the labels. Your kids want to please you. Every child wants to please his or her parents.

You want to please your parents, even now.

How much more do children who live in your house want to please you?

Trust that, at the core, your children complain when they fear they will not succeed and will be diminished in your eyes. Lower the threshold of risk, support their process, affirm who they are, and try a new strategy on another day.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Cross-posted on facebook.

One Response to ““I don’t want to disappoint you.””

  1. Nadene says:

    What reassuring and encouraging words! And I love the examples you share.
    I recently wrote a post Positive Feedback where I encourage parents not to give gushing praise, but rather inspire their children with specific feedback, detailed observations, and carefully worded encouragement.