"Stay on task."
It is one the most frequently repeated messages of a classroom teacher. As both a parent and a child and adolescent therapist, I feel precisely the opposite way. Some of the most valuable conversations I ever have with kids come when they stray from the task or topic at hand and begin to talk stream-of-consciousness-style about what is really on their minds. "Going off on a tangent" usually means we're doing our best work.
Yesterday, when my daughter was struggling with her weekend handwriting homework and complaining about the fit of her socks, the temperature of the room and the earliness of her bedtime, I started out in teacher mode.
"Honey, focus on what you are doing so that we can meet our friends for lunch."
As my 2nd grader labored to make the top of the circle of her lowercase "d" graze the dashed center-line of her Zaner-Bloser alphabet paper, her complaints shifted and changed in tone:
• Mom, do I have to do this right now?
• I need an eraser.
• I can't get these letters right. My teacher says my circles have to be perfect. She doesn't like it when I curve the stem on my lowercase "a."
• I keep getting "checks" on my handwriting papers instead of "check pluses."
• It's embarrassing when the other kids ask me what grade I get.
• I can't get these circles to look like my teacher wants them.
• I'm not smart anymore!
I look in my daughter's frustrated, tear-filled eyes. I feel so emotional myself, watching her self-confidence plummeting over a handwriting assignment. I feel like screaming out:
• Who cares about "perfect" handwriting?
• Doesn't your teacher know that everyone types these days and computers make perfect keystrokes every time?
• In the past, teachers have never had a problem reading your writing! What's wrong with this teacher who is nit-picking every single pencil stroke?
• Aren't there more important subjects out there than handwriting?
But I force myself to stay silent and just listen. My brain overrides my heart and my mouth. I know these are the wrong responses for the moment. I feel like there is something more. I muzzle myself. I wait for it. Here it comes:
• Mom, she just doesn't like me. No matter what I do in her class, she doesn't like it. I won the reading contest for two months in a row and instead of telling me I did a great job, she told me I should be more "well-rounded."
• If I raise my hand to volunteer when she asks for a helper to pass out papers or sharpen pencils, she tells me that I already am the Office Messenger and not to ask to do more.
• When I reached the goal she assigned me of doing 36 math problems in 60 seconds, all she told me was that my goal should be higher.
• No matter how straight I make the stems on my "a's" or how perfectly I form my lowercase "d's," she never gives me a good grade in Handwriting.
• I just can't do anything right for her.
My daughter's tears began to flow. Throughout preschool, kindergarten and first grade, my daughter had been the lucky student of nurturing, praising teachers. At home, she has family members who acknowledge her successes generously. This year, she is having her first experience with someone who is not easy to please. And it is crushing for her.
It is crushing for me as well, to see her confidence shaken so deeply. I want to rush in, solve the problem and alleviate her stress. I want to tell her not to worry about something as old-school as "handwriting." I count the days 'til the next parent-teacher conference and imagine politely asking the teacher if she could possibly be bothered to say "Nice job!" should my daughter win another reading contest or write a letter correctly. Most of all, I just have a Mama Bear's urge to pave a path for my daughter in which nurturing adults give her positive feedback (only when it is merited, of course... I am trying to be reasonable) and help her feel valued.
I take a (very!) deep breath as I hold my daughter through her tears. It is so painful to watch her anguish. A different part of me -- a less emotional, more rational one -- believes that this experience of being the student of a hard-to-please adult might just be a valuable one. As great as praise feels, the reality is that life is full of teachers, peers, bosses, partners, spouses, neighbors, friends and frenemies alike that are slow to approve and quick to criticize. Developing self-esteem that is independent of someone else's approval may just be one of those life lessons/growth opportunities that prepares my daughter well for her future encounters at school, work and in relationships.
So, back to that "task" that her teacher would want us to stay on. Handwriting is one of those things that my young student is going to need to learn to do according to her teacher's standards. The tangential, higher-value task at hand for me, as a mother, is to help my daughter understand that in this life, she will not be able to please everyone. Rather, she will benefit more from learning to find satisfaction and gain self-esteem from her own inner knowledge of a job well-done. Teaching her that the opinion that matters the most is her own may be the most important lesson she never learns from her teacher this year.
Signe Whitson is a national speaker who presents on bullying, anger management skills and crisis intervention skills for challenging children. She is the author of Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Ages 5-11 to Cope with Bullying. Visit her at www.signewhitson.com, Like her on Facebook, and Follow her on Twitter @SigneWhitson.