When a child comes home and asks his parent how to do the long division taught at school that day, or how to spell “neighbor”, the natural, parental reaction is to teach the long division steps and spell out “neighbor”. I believe this has the potential to create a counter-intuitive negative cycle that is worth considering. If the parent always has the answer then what is the purpose of the teacher from the student’s viewpoint? And what classroom implications follow because that teacher may be perceived as “pointless”. Anytime that a student asks an academic question at home, give some thought to why they are asking? There is an old parable about a starving man that wanders into a fishing village. On his first day, he is given a fish. On his second day, he is given a fish. What does he learn? To keep begging for fish. One day a wise fisherman refuses to give the starving man a fish, but instead teaches him how to fish. And, of course, the once starving man is no longer a beggar, but instead a productive member of the fishing village. I think this parable outlines the boundaries of parent and teacher rather well. As parents we want our children to get good grades. We want them to be successful in school. We want them to pass their long division test. We want them to submit paragraphs that are spelled correctly. But are we feeding them a fish each day, or are we teaching them to fish?
Consider the following dialogue:
Daughter: “Daddy, can you explain how to do this math problem?”
Father: “Actually, I’d like you to explain to me how you solve this.”
Daughter: “But I don’t know how. That’s why I’m asking you.”
Father: “I see. Then I’d like you to ask your teacher how to do this problem, and then tomorrow night you can explain to me what she taught you.”
Daughter: “But this is due tomorrow and I have to get it done tonight!”
Father: “I understand. Just try your best. Attempt every question. Follow the model in the book the best you can. Make up a theory and try to consistently follow it. Write down specific questions that you want to ask your teacher. Remember, risk taking is hard. I look forward to hearing your explanation of this tomorrow night.”
I’d like to say that I get this right with my own children all the time. The best I can say is that I’m better at it this month than I was last month. But is there content that I should be reinforcing at home? Is it ok to teach my child my old-school multiplication and division techniques? Can I insist on editing their writing? After reinforcing my child’s classroom participation and engagement with her teacher, where do I draw the line with respect to the content I teach?