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Let the little children struggle

Family

Do you have a child who is behind in school, who can’t seem to get his homework completed on time, who hates to do math? Have you ever been tempted to come to the rescue, boot up Google, and act as scribe while your child writes “his” history paper or “her” report on gorillas?

Experts are—at long last—saying, “Don’t.”

Of course, “expert” recommendations are by nature suspect. Remember just a couple of years ago when Dr. Roy Baumeister recanted his determination that feeding a child’s self-esteem paves a gravel-free path toward his certain success? Yeah, he only misled parents for three decades on that one.

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But maybe the experts are onto something this time. This recent body of research, led by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, shows that despite being fed a glut of Baby Einstein videos, taking violin at age 3, and doing math worksheets instead of playing on the merry-go-round, academically hyperstimulated kids aren’t coming out ahead after all. Meaning that frantic parents trying to run a 4-minute-mile pace in the competitive sport Paul Tough (the writer of this Wall Street Journal article) calls the “Rug Rat Race” may be doing their children a great disservice.

What counts for long-term success, Tough says, is what most church-going parents have known all along: character. You know, things like persistence and patience, once a regular staple of any school experience but now nearing extinction as Mom and Dad bear more and more of Junior’s educational brunt.

The character versus smarts argument conjures up images we’ve all seen: the rich kid with every advantage crying when the teacher says he can’t retake the test for the third time; prissy little girls relying on Mommy to do a good job on their diorama this time, because last time, she really blew it; the class “genius” who grows up and finds out he’s not really a genius, only a little boy propped up by parents who dared not bruise his tender ego by admitting he was pretty average.

In the end, the irony between the old and new schools of thought can’t be missed: The now-outdated cry to boost a child’s self-esteem seems to have bred a couple of generations of parents who boosted all right, but did so via methods like doing their child’s homework for him (“I just helped!”), packing little Susie’s schedule with chess club, fencing, and math tutors to give her an edge over Jonny who was also on the Montessori school waiting list, and teaching an 18-month-old the order of the presidents. In such cases, one wonders just whose self-esteem they were trying to boost.

All that to say, as we head into month two of the school year, don’t feel bad if your answer to Jonny asking if you will build his science project for him is a resounding “No.” He may throw a colossal fit, but in the end, he’ll stomp up the stairs and sweat through the difficult project himself. Even if he doesn’t get an A++ with a cherry on top, he’ll be developing just the kind of grit and stick-to-itiveness experts say is the key to his future success.

Amy Henry
Amy Henry

Amy is a married mother of six and a WORLD correspondent from Kansas. Follow her other "scribbles" at Whole Mama or by reading her book Story Mama: What Children's Stories Teach Us About Life, Love and Mothering. Follow Amy on Twitter @wholemama.

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