How Parents Can Raise Struggling Learners as Gifts
Mark Cooper, Ph.D., L.P.C.
No family member is exempt from the many challenges associated with children who struggle and the parents who share in those struggles. Parents and children are especially quick to introduce the long laundry list of misdeeds toward one another when given an opportunity to discuss their struggles.
The primary pathology is seeing only the pathology. Many parents and children find every reason for their unhappiness and few reasons for happiness. How can parents and children find happiness when their thoughts and actions are ruled by the worry, stress, and tension over children's performances? How many children can find joy and pleasure when asked to devote most of their time trying to fix unsolicited deficits? How many parents can find joy and pleasure when faced with coaxing children who want to do something else?
Parents devote tremendous time, energy, and effort to support and assist their children. A damaging blow to those efforts is the fact that many children need but don't want parental help. Parents find themselves between that proverbial rock and a hard place. Love-hate relationships grow between parents and children who struggle. Children voice through their actions, "I love you because I want you, but I hate you because I need you." It is no wonder children come to see themselves as projects first. The relationships at home are emotionally laden and reflect work in the very areas that precipitate the most strain.
There are many courses parents may follow. Improving the potential successes of whatever routes they choose requires the essential first step of developing the parental mindset that communicates, "You are a gift." Such a mindset is a tremendous force; it rules thoughts, communications, and experiences—both good and bad. It is the powerhouse behind the feelings and actions that prevail and the voice that shapes the on-going relationships among parents and children. There must be a counter-punch to the love-hate relationship that grows steadily. If there is a punch prone to knock out the destructive love-hate tension of many families, it is the notion that children are not projects, unfinished business, or unsolved puzzles.
The following strategies are designed to help parents treat their struggling children as gifts before they embark on the long journey necessary to help their children achieve and succeed.
Strategy #1: Separate the Children from the Performance
A most difficult challenge for parents is to separate children from their performances. Parents tend to see their children for what they do, not who they are. For much of my life and Jim's life, we were the sum totals of our performances. Achievement validated us. In my case, I know achievement supported any semblance of high self-esteem and made me feel a sense of worthiness. As a result, I have spent an inordinate number of years achieving performance labels—B.S.E., M.S.E., Ph.D., and L.P.C. This mindset carried an expensive price tag: lack of self-acceptance, anxiety, fear of failure, and impatience with shortcomings, among others.
The separation of the performer and the performance only occurs when parents genuinely accept their struggling children for who they are, rather than what they become through their performances. This communication cannot be a half-hearted attempt. Children see through such guises. Parents must convey, "You are the light of my life, and this light shines because of who you are rather than what accomplishments you have demonstrated."
The performer (child) cannot and will not recognize this message unless mid-night oil also falls on conversations outside those related to children's achievements or accomplishments. Mealtime, down time around the television, walks in the park, bedtime, and other occasions cannot be tainted by the message, "We are wasting our time playing or relaxing when we could be improving a paper, preparing for a test, or reworking an assignment." Just as the adage suggests, parents must find time to smell the roses with their children. Such moments of relaxation cannot feel like the calm before the inevitable storm. Those moments must say to the children that they are enjoyed, appreciated, and loved without reservation and without question.
Strategy #2: Embracing the Whole Child—Abilities and Disabilities
Parents must learn that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. If they do, their children will learn to see themselves as wonderful composites of abilities and disabilities as well as strengths and weaknesses. This view can become a tremendous catalyst for children's pursuit of excellence, happiness, and contentment.
A good parental inventory includes such questions as, "What qualities interfere with creating an environment where children see their abilities and disabilities as well as their strengths and weaknesses?" Impatience, intolerance, a lack of self-control and inflexibility are examples of such qualities. If children are to feel like gifts, not projects, they must face parents who recognize and avoid words, actions, and attitudes that lead to undesirable consequences. Parents must show the patience required to accept the challenges of children without displaying the restlessness that suggests, "You are too far behind to catch up." Parents must show tolerance as evidenced by their acceptance of their children who perform at different levels of achievement and maturity. Parents must resist showing anger as a sign that something is wrong with their children because of their struggles. Further, parents must find ways to show the flexibility to empower their children to feel as if they are a part of any solution. When children are not involved in their own interventions, feelings of being victims or of being recipients of decisions made by those in control are perpetuated.
Children need to see themselves as wonderful composites of abilities and disabilities as well as strengths and weaknesses. If children are going to recognize their strengths and abilities, parents must demonstrate the qualities of patience, tolerance, self-control, and flexibility. Surrounding children with the positive attitudes of their parents prepares a launching pad or springboard from which children address their weaknesses and disabilities. Children face their deficits at school more easily when they awaken with their strengths and abilities in mind.
Strategy #3: Promote the Empowerment of Children
Parents who nurture the traits of patience, tolerance, self-control, and flexibility in themselves are in better positions to encourage their children. A flexible parent promotes the attributes children need to have in order to see themselves as individuals who have something wonderful to offer.
Pocock et al. (2002) recommends that parents empower children by promoting self-advocacy, self-determination, and self-awareness. Children who better understand their struggles can more fully understand how those struggles affect their experiences and relationships. In the book, Raising a Thinking Child Workbook, Myrna Shure (2000) recommends that children become problem solvers. Shure's recommendations promote a freedom for children to think for themselves. This freedom empowers children to not only solve everyday problems guaranteed for those who struggle, but also to see themselves as the problem solvers. This is a far cry better than seeing themselves as victims or simply as recipients of those who solve problems for them. The latter is no more than the same old thing where children "need" help due to their inability to help themselves.
William Glasser (1997), a prominent psychiatrist and educational consultant explains that power is a basic need for individuals. This is especially true for those "disempowered" children who depend so fiercely on others for academic rescue. Children who struggle must also have opportunities to be the boss. They want to be the boss of themselves, their parents, their teachers, and sometimes even their classmates. They want to show others "I am in charge."
Rather than alienate or separate the children from power, parents need to identify ways to promote such empowerment. Children can become the "presidents of the board" while parents become the "board members." Then children can appreciate their roles in setting the agenda as well as appreciate their parents' roles in helping them to achieve the agenda set.
Once struggling learners adopt empowerment as an integral component of their mindsets, their best efforts emerge, barriers of self-doubt lessen, openness to weakness surfaces, and appreciation of the "whole-self" prevails. Parents are more inclined to market, "My child is a gift," once the notion of empowerment is accepted by the parents and embraced by the children.
Strategy #4: Maximize Success Habits or Life-Abilities
Silver (1998) claimed that life-disabilities interfere with every aspect of children's lives—at home, with friends, in sports, in activities. It becomes critical for children to cultivate life-abilities as an antidote to the life disabilities that often paralyze progress and leave despair in their wakes. Not many children who struggle will see themselves as anything more than a project if they cannot see themselves as being in control of the project. While it is hard to control the deficits that come with dyslexia, it is possible and far more gratifying to control the life-abilities required to combat the deficits.
Life-abilities or success habits include confidence in spite of present performance level, motivation, persistence, perseverance, delayed gratification, determination, tolerance, risk-taking, caring, graceful mistake making, resilience, and problem solving. Those abilities or habits are the backbone, the bricks and mortar that build a solid foundation for academic learning. Yet, most of the time children think only of their inadequacies in writing papers, completing their assignments successfully, or making good grades on their report cards.
The good news is that children who struggle have more control over their life-abilities than their life-aptitudes. Also good news, life-abilities have an enormous impact on life-achievements. Norman Vincent Peale, a minister, author, philosopher, and orator, (as cited in Anderson and McKee, 1990) claimed that any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude toward it, for that determines our success or failure. The former Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi (as cited in Anderson and McKee), echoed a similar sentiment when he stated that the difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will. The life-abilities of children who struggle give the children more say over the outcomes of their struggles.
Children who struggle often come to a screeching halt because they struggle so incessantly with decoding words, comprehending the text, and writing a response to an essay examination; the very deficits they control the least. Parents must seize on those moments where their children demonstrate the life-abilities regardless of outcomes. If not, the children will only see the unfinished business rather than the business at hand—the exercise of those life-abilities that launch learning.
Hope is desire with the expectation of obtaining what is desired. It is my hope that the outlined strategies help parents to see children who struggle as gifts first, to see more of who the children are and less of who they are not, and to communicate an unconditional love regardless of the children's performances. I also hope parents know that our children's very best does not require perfection, and recognize that affirmation and acceptance precede any attempt to foster growth within our children. From this foundation parents help children move mountains with motivation and simultaneously be satisfied with their present place on the mountain. They encourage children to embrace their abilities and inabilities by reinforcing the thought that through weakness we gain strength. Further, I hope parents replace their thoughts of "you can't" with "you can" and treat children as if they already are what they could be.
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Pocok, A., Lambros, S., Karvonen, M., Test, D. T., Algozzine, B., Wood, W., et al. (2002, March) Successful strategies for promoting self-advocacy among students with LD: The lead group. Intervention in School and Clinic, 209-216.
Schweitzer, A. (1963). Out of my life and thought (p 74). New York: New American Library.
Shure, M. B., Digeronimo, T. Foy and Aher, J. (2000). Raising a thinking child workbook: Teaching young children how to resolve everyday conflicts and get along with others. Champaign, Illinois: Research Press.
Silver, L. B. (1998). The Misunderstood Child: Understanding and coping with your child's learning disabilities (Third edition). New York: Three Rivers Press.
Mark Cooper, Ph.D., L.P.C. is an Associate Professor of Early Childhood and Special Education at the University of Central Arkansas.