What to Do If Your Child Doesn’t Like a School Subject

Today we want to talk about a question that I think most of us have heard at some time or other in our homeschool career. “I don’t like doing (whatever the subject is).” What about when my child doesn’t like to do a certain subject?

Here to join me is my friend and coworker, Laura Pitney.

Sonya: Laura, thanks for joining us.

Laura: Glad to be here.

Sonya: Let’s talk about What if my child doesn’t like a certain subject? What are the next steps?

Laura: That’s hard because I think we’ve all been there at some point or another. So, let’s open that can of worms.

Sonya: Some thoughts came to mind. I think, first, when you hear that, the tendency is to panic. We think, “Oh, I must be doing something wrong,” and we immediately think that it’s our fault. But let’s back up and take a broader perspective. There’s always something you don’t like in life. Even as a baby, there’s something you don’t like. And as a preschooler, there are lots of things you don’t like. As a child, as a teenager, as an adult, there are things in life that we don’t like. It’s not some weird and abnormal situation to have something you don’t like. So we don’t need to panic. But when a child says that, I think we need to check a couple of things. First, Why does that child not like the subject? If it is that the child just doesn’t understand it and is struggling to make sense of it, it makes sense that they would not like it. If you don’t understand something, you don’t like to do it. It’s hard. So, I think that in that situation, we need to determine Is this the optimal learning zone for my child? It could be that they don’t understand it, so we need to just take a few steps back and help them understand what they’re doing, help them grasp it better. But on the other side of that optimal learning zone is they’re bored stiff with it because they already know all of that, and they aren’t being challenged. So look at that optimal learning zone. Are we in there somewhere? But if it’s not a learning issue, it’s not in that learning zone—we’re going to set that aside—then it’s probably just a preference zone. And when I think preference, I think “comfort zone.” We all have our comfort zones that we don’t like to be nudged out of, and sometimes some of the subjects like picture study or poetry, . . . well, it’s the same for moms. Maybe some of us don’t like to do nature study, and so we tend to avoid it; or Shakespeare, that’s out of some people’s comfort zone, and so they tend to avoid it. So we need to relate with our children in this, but we need to also determine why it is. If it is outside their comfort zone, let’s talk about those issues. It’s not a learning issue; it’s just a preference issue. What are some thoughts you have on that?

I think it’s important that you can teach your child that you still have to do what’s right even when you don’t feel like it.

Laura: Well, I think that it helps to understand that as the children grow, their preferences do change. So to be aware of that if something’s going great and you feel like the child’s engaged, then the next year maybe they’re not. Just keep a check on as they develop as young people, that their interests and preferences change. I think that’s a general guideline to keep in mind. But I also think about… Like you mentioned life lessons here. You have those situations all through their lives. So if you figured out that it’s a preference for your child, I think it’s important that you can teach them, plant that seed, that you still have to do what’s right even when you don’t feel like it. There’s an integrity component to helping them find motivation to push through it and to still comply and to get it done with a happy heart even if it’s not their preference. So, I think there’s a good teaching point there, just as a life lesson, and not to cater to them, to give in. That’s hard, because everybody parents so differently. But I know in my homeschool experience, when I’ve had children really have a hard time pushing through whatever the assignment is, or a concept, or whatever that ends up looking like, once I realize it’s their preference, it’s helped me determine, “Okay, what’s our motivation here?” I want them to have that love of learning and understand that “This may not be your happy sentence…” My older daughter is not happy with diagramming sentences, so that’s why it came out. But for her to understand that that’s one way to analyze a sentence, and to understand it, and then let’s move on. But the heart focus during that dislike of it was a talking point for us, to plant those seeds of—like you mentioned earlier—this is a life lesson, to just stick with it and do it even though you don’t feel like it, because it’s the right thing to do.

Sonya: We could also approach it as a courage issue. It takes courage to step outside your comfort zone and do something that you don’t like to do. Case in point: I don’t like to try new foods. I don’t. You know this. It’s outside my comfort zone. It takes courage to step outside that. That’s different from a subject at school, in a way, but that also takes courage. So if she doesn’t like to diagram sentences, first, like you said, find out why. What’s the motivation? If she does understand it and it’s just a preference issue, then we could approach it from a courage standpoint of, “This is a good way to practice the courage it’s going to take; because when you grow up, you’re going to face many more things like this.” And maybe share from our own experience some things that we do every day as adults that we don’t necessarily like.

Laura: That puts it more on a positive spin. It gives them opportunity to rise to the occasion. And I like that picture I get in my mind when you mention the word courage. I think that that’s a good point. I think that when you have to deal with your children not complying or not liking it, and once we’re in the camp of it being a preference, it’s an opportunity to exemplify authority. As a parent, the Lord gives us authority over our children. And our children need to understand that we are accountable as stewards of them. And so, again, “You don’t like to do this. It’s not what you would choose to do; but you still have to obey, because I’m the authority over you.” And to say it in a loving way that is an example to them that we’re not doing this just to make their life miserable. We’re doing it because we see it’s for their better good.

Sonya: As you said, “We are held accountable for our actions too, so we can’t just let you out of it.”

Laura: And for some parents, that takes a lot of courage, because we want to love our children and to make life easy for them and to cater to all their wants and needs. But is that really the best thing for them in the education setting? So, I take that as an encouragement even from a parenting perspective, to have courage, to do the hard thing, and enforce what we expect.

Sonya: That’s a good point.

Laura: I know it’s not good to hear. It’s hard; it’s hard to swallow. But it’s a big thing to shoulder, knowing that, like you said, we’re accountable.

Sonya: Parenting is not for cowards.

Laura: We need that on T-shirt.

Sonya: It probably already is somewhere. Along with that, then, some other practical things that we can do to try and make the path as smooth as possible. We cannot say, “Okay, you don’t have to go down that path.” Not with a clear conscience, we can’t say that, but we can try and make that path as smooth as possible.

Laura: And we want to.

Sonya: Absolutely.

Laura: We’re not out to get them. Even though they think it sometimes, we’re not.

Sonya: They could think that. But sometimes we think they’re out to get us too, but we won’t go there.

Laura: More coffee!

Sonya: So some things you can do to make that path a little bit smoother. Number one is to make sure that you’re not overburdening them by making that lesson drag out longer than it needs to, keeping that short succinct lesson. Now, granted, if the child is dragging her heels because she doesn’t like it, then it’s a natural consequence that it drags on. But from our standpoint, we do what we can to keep it short. “Yes, you don’t like it, but it’s just going to be for this short time.” We also can make that path a little bit smoother by using Charlotte’s methods. Charlotte Mason’s methods, I think, are enjoyable, much more enjoyable than what most of us grew up with in school. But we have to be careful we are not confusing enjoyable and fun in our brains.

We have to be careful we are not confusing enjoyable and fun in our brains.

Laura: Explain the difference. Teach me.

Sonya: I know there’s a difference. Whether I can verbalize it or not, I’m not sure. Enjoyable means it’s not tedious, it’s not overburdening. It is…

Laura: You’re satisfied when it’s done.

Sonya: Yes, there’s a good sense of accomplishment there, and it hasn’t been like pulling teeth the whole time, mind-numbing, and all of this. Fun is more emotional. “We’re going to ride on this adrenaline high. It doesn’t matter what we do as long as we keep that adrenaline high.” But the emotions and the adrenaline high is not where learning takes place most. Does that make sense?

Laura: Yes, it does.

Sonya: I think that Charlotte Mason’s methods are enjoyable, and we shouldn’t confuse that with this emotional high of fun all the time. Yes, we can have fun.

Laura: Yes, it happens.

Sonya: At times, sure, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to make them as enjoyable as we can with her methods, but we still have that sense of accomplishment at the end.

Laura: So, while you’re mentioning those things and the practical side of Charlotte’s methods—being the short lessons and the full attention and things like that—habits came to mind.

Sonya: Yes.

Laura: We mentioned integrity and the motivation of the child to stick with it, even though they don’t feel like it. Integrity is a habit. That’s something that is an emotional habit, if you will, or a mental habit.

Sonya: Courage is a habit as well. We don’t often think of courage as a habit, but it is.

Laura: Yes, I totally see that. And then I feel like, in my experience, when older children say they don’t like something, there’s a conversation there—whether it’s a hard issue or just plain-out dislike or understanding. But with the younger children, I see the habits interlaced in the situation. So if you have a six-year old who realizes, “You know what, I don’t like to tell back to you what I just heard.” It’s a heart of rebellion or it may just be foundations that need to be worked on to create a better student in the years to come. So, even though we’re talking about practical aspects of her methods, like physically what to do to help within that subject, there’s also the habit component that I just feel is so strong, or should be so strong, in developing the children and the way that they view things. We’ve been studying at church about helping to develop our children’s hearts. It’s steppingstones to where, eventually, they are making independent decisions. And we want them to be able to do that. But in the early years, it’s so important to expect full attention, and first-time obedience, and truthfulness. And to realize that if you work on that at an early age, then when you get to that conversation of that child saying, “Well, I don’t like it,” you already have… He’s obviously being truthful in how he feels.

Sonya: It’s true.

Laura: And if he’s already giving you his full attention, and he understands that he does have to obey when you tell him to do something, then that gives you some guidance to know whether this is a preference or maybe this is an understanding thing. If those foundational habits are there, it helps you troubleshoot later on.

Sonya: Yes, it would help at least lay the foundation for that conversation, so that you can get to the heart issue right away. Because a lot of times when our kids say, “I don’t like,” they use that term for many different reasons. So figuring out what’s behind it is going to be key.

Laura: We’re applying this to school subjects, but it’s the same idea if, for instance, you fix bacon and eggs for breakfast and your child says, “Well, I don’t like that.” Do you cater? Do you say, “Okay, go get cereal” or “I’ll make you cinnamon toast” or whatever? It’s the same idea of being consistent to where they understand, again, that there’s an authority figure there and that you know what’s best for them. So to say something along the lines of, “Well, I know this isn’t your favorite meal. Maybe I can make what you would like another day, but this is what we have today.” So, thankfulness.

Sonya: Yes, courtesy.

Laura: I just see that, yes, we’re talking about, “Well, I don’t like this” or “I don’t want to do this” in the school subjects, but it’s really a life lesson in all areas.

Sonya: Because there’s always going to be something in life you don’t like.

Laura: So true.

Sonya: It comes right back, full circle.