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I have been tutoring a child, and over the past months I have come to the conclusion that the parents allow the child to stop when things are getting hard. The child has from my view only little willpower, persistence, and discipline, and instead of dealing with difficult situations and working through them, the attitude is to drop the situation. Also I don't see the child having much self confidence, in terms of "he doesn't believe in himself".

I hate to make conclusions like this, especially because I can't say that I see everything that goes on every day, but there have been a large number of incidents and stories that I heard, that lead me to believe this.

I just came across a paragraph in a blog article that describes very well what I see is in the making:

a record number of 20-somethings who are depressed and don’t know why. These young adults claim they had magical childhoods. Their parents are their best friends. They never experienced tragedy or anything more than normal disappointments. Yet for some reason, they’re unhappy.

...parents today are too quick to swoop in. We don’t want our children to fall, so instead of letting them experience adversity, we clear the path. We remove obstacles to make their life easy. But adversity is a part of life, and only by facing it can our children build life-coping skills they’ll need down the road.

Many parents will go to do anything to protect their kids from even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—’anything less than pleasant’—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.” - psychiatrist Dr. Paul Bohn

While I find it great that today’s parents are more invested in their children’s lives than previous generations, our involvement can go overboard. ...Unless we’re mindful of that, it’s easy to handicap them by making their lives too easy.

As my favorite parenting philosophy goes: “Prepare your child for the road, not the road for your child.”

I see this issue manifested in quite a few ways, and I feel there has to be a line drawn somewhere.

My question is:

Is there any way that I could communicate this to the parents? Plant a seed in their head, at least give them perspective, make them think about it?

Or what else would be a good way for me to deal with this and put closure to it, at least so that I stop worrying about the child. I get very passionate about this, and feel many things should be handled differently, but obviously I am not in a place to have much say.

How can I as someone who is not the parent deal with this?

  • Hi, olli, and welcome to the site. I've edited your post a bit to focus on your questions, as opposed to potential causes (I presume you wouldn't want to discuss their faulty parenting.) Very important: how old is your student? Again, welcome! – anongoodnurse Apr 3 '15 at 21:20
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    Oh now I see some edits... I mean I see where you are coming from, but there's still a few things in there I'd like to see back. ^^ Putting those back now. – olli Apr 3 '15 at 21:35
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    What country / culture are you in? – A E Apr 4 '15 at 7:48
  • USA, midwest region. – olli Apr 4 '15 at 8:43
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As you have learned from your own reading, this is a common problem today, and probably results in part from the erroneous ways parents in the last few decades tried to give their children "self esteem".

In the article I cite, the author discusses what they call "the inverse power of praise". A short excerpt (edited for brevity):

Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. ...in kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. But as he progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t translated into confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ” Thomas was dividing the world into two — things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.

I'd be hesitant to advise you, as the tutor, on how to tell the parents what you might think they have done incorrectly. However, you can try something different, and if it works for you and your student, by all means, share it with them.

Praise has been shown to be of benefit in academic settings - even applied as late as middle school - if the praise is of the right sort.

Provided that praise is perceived as sincere, it is particularly beneficial to motivation when it encourages performance attributions to controllable causes, promotes autonomy, enhances competence without an over-reliance on social comparisons, and conveys attainable standards and expectations.

In other words, praising children for things they are able to control, like effort ("I admire the way you tried on this problem"), rather than an uncontrollable factor like intelligence, had a much greater beneficial effect on children.

Figure out how to teach the things you want your pupil to learn - not just academically, but how to apply himself and persist when faced with a challenge - and reward him with sincere praise whenever he follows your advice. If he's starting to "get it", praise him to his parents in front of him. Maybe together with his parents, another reward can be worked towards as well (never underestimate the power of the perfect bribe reward.) Contrary to how it seems, most kids really want to be successful; it's just that sometimes they don't know how, and need lots of encouragement to learn. If possible, make a game out of it from time to time: a friendly competition or a joke can alleviate stress if done well.* But imparting the tools for success is a serious business. Teaching kids that failure is momentary and instructive, instead of a reflection on them personally - destigmatizing and downplaying it - may help with their anxiety. Encouraging a growth mindset (achievement is an ongoing process: I can change this with work and direction) instead of a set mindset (I'm no good at this. I never will be.) can help.

Finally, it's possible that the parents have relinquished their parental responsibility to remain involved in their child's academic success by hiring a tutor (I hope it's just the opposite.) In this case, discussing working with them might be helpful as well.

*I once told a group of middle school students in a somewhat difficult class I was teaching (Latin) that I was going to give them advice that would change their lives forever. With a very straight face, I told them first to join their fingers together and close their eyes; I told them to take a deep breath and exhale slowly while emptying their minds of all distractions. When all was silent, I said solemnly, "Repeat after me. Read the Instructions. Follow the example." Everyone started to laugh but I made them repeat it again. To me, this was something that the students skipped through too quickly. It really is a life skill to slow down, make sure you read the instructions, and that you understand them by working the example. More than a few parents came to me over the next few weeks to tell me how much their kids liked the "lesson".

You probably have resources available to you which address how to help an adolescent to study. Do share those with the parents so that consistency is maintained.

How Not to Talk to Your Kids
Vicarious reinforcement: Expected and unexpected effects
Tips For Helping Kids and Teens With Homework and Study Habits
Motivating your adolescent to perform
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners

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    Thanks for reminding me to "praise effort not ability". Our sessions are actually not intellectual / academic (I said it's tutoring but it's physical activity). He is also home schooled... I thought that confronting the parents would be problematic, too. Sharing my findings along with articles might indeed help! Though I have to say at the end of the day I still feel powerless, trying to make a difference for the kid in the one hour per week I see him, when the parents have many opportunities to undo any progress... – olli Apr 12 '15 at 22:08
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I have no way of knowing whether the parents are over-protecting the child, whether you are pushing too hard, etc., etc. What I can tell you is that the most likely outcome of this tension, if it continues, is that the parents would sever the tutoring relationship.

So -- what can you do to neutralize this tension?

Learning works best when the learner is engaged. How's that going? Can you tape some of the sessions, listen to them later, and see if you can identify the activities that are going the best, and build from there? Can you also identify some patterns, for example, when is the student's concentration best, what environmental conditions seem to elicit the best work? Are you and your student having some fun together? Are you providing positive feedback when appropriate? (I realize sometimes it takes a big effort to find something to praise -- but it really is very helpful to do this.)

Please note, trying to desensitize an anxious child is a very tricky thing to do, and should only be attempted by someone with specialized training.

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  • Did you know you can see the original post (and all changes) by clicking on the "edited" text under the question? Also, discussion of edits and/or a request for additional information is better for comments or on Meta. – Acire Apr 5 '15 at 10:50
  • Thank you for teaching me how to do that. By the way, I wasn't sure if the left-hand side was the edited version or the original. But I was able to form the vague impression that there wasn't any hidden information that would help me understand the context.... I don't know how to use Meta yet. I hope it is better documented than Stackexchange is! – aparente001 Apr 5 '15 at 11:12
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    It's the same Q&A style, but it discusses the Parenting.SE site rather than parenting -- questions about on/off topic, why a question was edited or closed, etc. – Acire Apr 5 '15 at 11:14
  • @aparente001 - Answers should address the question, not things meant to be discussed in meta. As such, I'm editing out your commentary. Please bring this up in parenting meta – anongoodnurse Apr 5 '15 at 13:51
  • "Please note, trying to desensitize an anxious child is a very tricky thing to do, and should only be attempted by someone with specialized training." - The child needs to do his schoolwork. There was no mention of an anxiety disorder. If what you say were true of kids who avoid homework, most kids would need to see such an expert. – anongoodnurse Apr 5 '15 at 13:56

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