By: Clay Kaufman
Even when our children are in school, we, their parents, are still their primary educators. They turn to us for information and to make sense of the world. Every time we take them to the grocery store when they are very young, we are teaching them when we identify each fruit and vegetable they point out. Every time we curl up on the sofa to read a book, we are teaching them that reading is worthwhile, and every time we handle a difficult situation with as much calmness as we can muster, we are teaching them patience. One day I was throwing my 8-year-old son grounders in the front yard. The 4-year-old boy next door watched us, then brought his own baseball glove over. I stood back and watched my son throw grounders to our neighbor, using exactly the same language I had just used with him (“stay low, keep your glove down”). They watch us; we are modeling behavior even when we don’t realize it.
As our children spend more time with teachers and friends, we still have many tools at our disposal:
• Read aloud: No matter what they say, children never truly outgrow being read to or reading aloud with their parents. Picking a favorite book to read together can include everything from re-reading a favorite Dr. Seuss story with a younger child to exploring a new book together with your middle schooler. As each of my three children reached eighth grade, we read To Kill a Mockingbird together, and it is still a wonderful memory.
Reading aloud helps our children discover and understand new vocabulary words (instead of skimming over them), and creates opportunities for practicing their critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. Pausing at the end of a chapter to talk about the characters, or stopping to admire an interesting sentence, models important reading skills for children.
• Watch movies together: Not only fun and a chance to build memories, watching movies together can help students work on their comprehension skills. Pausing to get popcorn midway can provide a chance to ask our children what they think of the characters, or make predictions about the story (“What do you think will happen next?” or “Why did that character react that way”?).
• Give children opportunities to be the expert: We often ask “How was school today?”, or share information we know, but children much prefer to be the expert! Once we find out our child is studying trees or the weather or the American Revolution, asking as many open-ended questions as we can allows us to be the student. Even if we know all about trees, we can ask what our child knows, listen, and ask follow-up questions that get our child to share information eagerly, reinforcing their knowledge.
Similarly, if we know what they are studying in school, we can arrange to go to a museum related to that topic, asking our child to be our guide. Best of all, we can take our children to a museum or site that they have already visited on a school field trip and let them teach us.
• Boost their strengths and support their challenges: We benefit our children enormously when we support their strengths, whether in sports, the arts, academics, or practical areas. At the same time, we send an important message when we accept their areas of challenge and support them. Perhaps they struggle with reading, organization, planning, or motivation as many of our students at Eagle Hill do. Rather than making those areas a battlefield, we can—with guidance—find ways to give our children tools and strategies to cope with their challenges. A wonderful psychologist I know is dyslexic and doesn’t store information efficiently. He said the key to his long, happy marriage has been that his wife knows he is not going to remember to take out the garbage on the right day, and so rather than make it an area of contention or frustration, they have figured out an alternative so the garbage gets out. A family I know wanted their child to love reading—“real” reading. Greater peace came to the house when they realized that reading graphic novels or using Learning Ally to listen to books was much easier for their child, gave him pleasure, and, importantly, counted as reading!
We can’t change who our children are. But we can build on their strengths and accept and support them in their challenge areas, modeling for them how to make it through life, with all its surprises.