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Today we want to discuss an important question that one of our readers gave us: “What do you do when your child says schoolwork is pointless?” Here to help me with the discussion is my friend and co-worker, Laura Pitney.
Sonya: Laura, good to have you with us again.
Laura: Thank you for having me.
Sonya: Here’s the question. It’s rather long; there are lots of pieces to it, so give it your full attention.
Laura: Okay, I’m ready.
Sonya: All right, here we go. “My son thinks everything is pointless. Math is pointless. Writing is pointless. He can read but would rather be read to while he does something else. He’s very active and doesn’t like to sit still or be quiet. He gets angry quickly. He would prefer to be on electronics all day. I don’t mind him using them for some things. I am planning to use documentaries and learning videos from various sources, but he just wants to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it. And if I suggest any other way, he thinks I don’t care about him.”
Laura: That’s a tough one.
Sonya: There are a lot of layers to that question. One thing that we haven’t found out is the age of the child, and that could have a big impact on how we would give counsel, I think, especially if the child is young. If he’s not yet 10 years old, or not yet fluent in reading for himself, then you reading to him is what you should be doing. And he doesn’t have to sit still while you read to him. Some kids process better when they’re moving as long as they’re not distracting the other kids, if there are other kids, and they’re not distracting themselves, let them move. So if he is old enough that he is reading fluently on his own, then that would be an issue we could discuss also. But the age has so much to do with it. I don’t have boys, but my friends who have boys tell me that it’s especially important with boys to paint the picture of why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Laura: Yes, I think that gives them motivation and understanding that lends in your favor when you ask them to do something or tell them to do something, so I agree with that.
Sonya: So if he is old enough, . . . how old would you say? Or mature enough? Age might not have any big emphasis on this.
Laura: I think you hit on the key point: the maturity of the child. We have a young boy in our co-op who’s seven. He is so quick with all the things, and the discussions I can have with him are so deep. And then you have another seven-year-old boy or an 11-year-old boy, like my son, who you just have to approach differently. So the age thing is hard in this question, first of all because we don’t know the age, but then there are so many variables in this type of situation. Mom needs to understand the maturity level her child is at in this situation, this attitude of “everything is pointless.” That’s up to the mom, not necessarily a strict rule which we know.
Sonya: Yes, the mom knows the child best, absolutely. So when we are thinking about this question, there are really a couple of areas that we could unpack. One is life skills that the child is learning, and the other is the heart issue that needs to be dealt with. Where should we start?
Laura: Let’s do life skills.
Sonya: Okay, we’ll start with life skills—painting that picture for the student of “The skills you’re learning here do have a purpose.” It might not be the exact application that we’re using them in. For example, the child might not see any purpose to looking at pictures, a picture study, but you can learn a lot of things from that method that will help you in your areas of interest. Does that make sense?
Laura: It does. My son’s really into cars right now, makes and models of cars. So I’ve thought about him a few times with the habits he’s learned in art study of that focus, attention, noticing the details. When we’re out and about, his thing is to find all the GTs that he can find anywhere when we’re in the car. He can spot them just because this is what he’s looking for. Then he notices the different rims; he notices even the shades of color. He is all about it! So I see that skill that he’s learned in our picture study habit transfer over to his noticing details about cars, which has then translated into him wanting to draw them or make models out of them. So that would be a life skill. Even though he may not understand the point of art study, even though we’ve talked about it, he has used that skill he’s learned in something he’s interested in.
Sonya: That makes all kinds of sense, yes.
Laura: Whether he realizes it or not, it’s a good thing.
Sonya: If the child is bringing up this whole “pointless” thing, then maybe you should show him that, “Okay, what you learned here, do you see how you’re using it here?” It’s the same thing with history, you’re learning about other people and the decisions they made and the consequences that came of that because you’re going to have to make decisions too. It’s a whole lot less painful to learn about the consequences through reading history than through experiencing it for yourself. So there are reasons for all of this.
One thing that came to my mind also is, it helps for the parent to have a purpose or a goal in mind. I did one for every school subject when I first started homeschooling. I had a speaker at a convention challenge us to do this, to go through every school subject and come up with what is the biblical goal for this school subject. So for language arts, Why do we have to learn punctuation, capitalization?
Laura: Amen, why do we have to?
Sonya: The biblical goal I had for my kids was I wanted them to be able to accurately and effectively communicate the gospel.
Laura: That’s a good goal.
Sonya: That’s your biblical goal. If punctuation gets in the way of that, clearly and accurately explaining the gospel, if things are punctuated incorrectly it can completely change the whole meaning of the sentence. So the goal is that they can accurately and effectively communicate the gospel. So you don’t want misspellings. You don’t want bad punctuation. You want to present something that is appealing to others, because it all goes back to who you represent: the Lord. So if you go through every school subject as a parent and come up with a goal, “This is why we’re doing this, and it all funnels into here.”
Laura: It gave you an anchor to know what line to cross or not to cross with the pressure.
Sonya: Yes, where to push, “We’ve got to do this,” and where to say, “You know, you’re doing your best and I’ll take that,” those types of things. When I say “push,” you know what I mean. I don’t mean push this kid to do what he can’t do; I mean teach him to do what he knows he should do even if he doesn’t feel like it. That, then, starts talking about heart issues and the will, which was part of this question, a huge part. This child wants to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it. There’s your weak will, right there. I’m not bad-mouthing this child, because we’re all like that.
Laura: Correct, I was just going to say I know that’s my attitude a lot of times, “I just want to go to bed.”
Sonya: Yes, we want to do what we want to do when we want to do it. But part of our job as a parent is to help our children grow strong enough to do what they know they should even if they don’t feel like it, to do the hard things, to make those hard choices.
Laura: Right, and it’s hard when we cross that line to try to help our children with their hearts, because we’re sinful, they’re sinful, and to see how they’re manipulating the situation or to see how they are laying some guilt (I know that falls under manipulation as well).
Sonya: Just like in the question, “You don’t care about me if you don’t let me do what I want to do,” when the exact opposite is the case.
Laura: Right. So to know the right responses to have that’s going to feed the right mind-set. To know Scripture that talks about honoring your mother and father and to do all things to the glory of God, whether you feel like it or whether you think I don’t care about you.
“I’m doing this because I do care about you, because I’m responsible to the Lord for how I parent you and teach you.” So just feeding them those positive words. “My motivation is not to make your life miserable.” (I mean, maybe some of the times, but . . . .) Our goal is to love and support them and to help them succeed. I find myself having to say that to my children, because I do feel like they cling to the things they don’t like. Especially with my older kids, I find myself at least once a day saying, “You know, I’m really not out to get you. This is my decision because I love you or I think this is best. And you just need to trust me. I’m not the bad guy here. I’m here because I love you and want to see you succeed.” I have to tell them that because it’s so easy to get bogged down with all the things I’m saying no to or the things they don’t like, and I’m making them do, so to speak, all those things. So even to put it into words and to say it and encourage them to help break that mind-set of “it’s all pointless.”
Sonya: I think another part of that is finding out what that child is interested in and kindling that flame as much as you can. I’m not saying instead of the schoolwork, but like you said, your son’s interested in cars, well, you can take the skills you’re learning in schoolwork and apply them to that situation. You can encourage him in that endeavor, in that interest. One thing that raised a little flag when we were reading this question is she said he would like to spend all day on electronics.
Laura: I mean, wouldn’t we all? Give me some Hallmark movies, just for the day or something.
Sonya: Bubble gum for the mind, yes.
Laura: It’s definitely in us to want that.
Sonya: It is, because it’s the easy way. That’s what a weak will is, just take the easy way out, do what I feel like doing instead of what I know I should. So it really raised a flag because I just started reading a book that is fascinating. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far it’s been so good. It’s by Gary Chapman who wrote The Five Love Languages. It’s called Screen Kids. Fascinating book. It has all the latest scientific studies and documentation of what video games and social media does to our kids’ brains, and not just their brains but how it can sabotage relationships with the parent and sabotage developing this ability to do hard things in real life, to live real life, and how addictive it can be especially to little boys. That was fascinating. So I highly recommend that book. I think it would be good motivation for, like you said, that anchor for us. Because it’s hard to be the bad guy all the time as a parent. Like you said, “I’m making this choice because I love you.” But sometimes we start to want to take the easy way out ourselves, don’t we? It’s like, “Forget it, I’m just tired of fighting the fight. I just want to give up and take the easy way out.” But we can’t do that if we truly love our children.
Laura: Right, I think it’s really important too to acknowledge the baby steps that are happening, because even though we may have this mind-set of everything is pointless—our children, or we may have it too, whatever that mind-set is—and let’s say today’s the day where we’re going to try to make the changes to where we’re more positive or we’re going to explain the big picture or we’re going to work on those life skills or the heart motivation, to acknowledge those baby steps. I’m the type of person that just wants it to be fixed and done—
Sonya: Right now.
Laura: Right now.
Sonya: Today is the day. Everything’s going to change.
Laura: And I don’t want to have to go back and revisit it. I just want it to be done. So for me, it’s the progress of it all, not the perfection (because I want the perfection). I think if I focus too much on that perfection then I miss out on the relationship part of those baby steps along the way. So I say that as an encouragement, because different children, different moms have different temperaments with this mind-set of “things are pointless” or “Why are we doing this?” or “Why can’t I just do half of it versus completing it a hundred percent?” All those negative things. It’s easy to get bogged down. So I say that as an encouragement. It’s the progress of overcoming daily struggles and acknowledging those things that are changed and are happening; because they are there, it’s just easy to not see it because we’re waiting for that perfected end of whatever we’re looking for. It’s almost like managing the expectations.
Sonya: Yes, we focus so much on what needs to be fixed. Then when this little part of it actually has an improvement, we shove it out of sight and focus on “Okay, this needs to be fixed.” We don’t even pay any attention to that little piece that we just threw away. So if we can celebrate the wins, and if we can remember that giving our children what is best is not always easy.
Laura: It’s so hard. I want it to be easy.
Sonya: It is hard. But what we are asking from our children is the same as what we’re putting on ourselves. We want them to give their best effort even when it’s hard, and so we’ve got to model that too.
Laura: And we can do it.
Sonya: With the Lord’s help.
Laura: We can do it.