Saturday, December 12, 2015

Stop Spoon Feeding Your Children

A good parent is eager for their children to know all of the things children need to know so they can grow up and fix the world, which totally needs fixing all of the time.

A tiny little child asks a lot of questions and has an unlimited memory for the answers which he will use against his parent when he's a little older.  The official classical curriculum emphasizes knowing, aka memorizing stuff at this stage.  Since US curriculum is two years behind the rest of the world, there's a lot of stuff to memorize at home.

So the child asks questions and the parent answers them.  Before long, the child is baffled by 32 / 8 and asks what the answer is, or, as in the case of many of my readers, the child is baffled by a figure matrix.  In a worst case scenario, the child is in the 99th percentile on standardized tests, because below the average on GAT tests.  The reason for this train wreck is that the child has grown up asking questions and getting answers and the curriculum is suddenly requiring thinking.  The only skill the child has is asking questions and getting answers.

If your child does a question of any type and asks you for help before spending ten minutes staring at the problem and guessing, you blew it somewhere along the lines and you stink as a parent.

When I talk to the really bright children in the best GAT programs, asking and answering conversational questions, the children smirk as they calculate how much humor and sarcasm I am using, not because I am humorous or sarcastic, but because they never get a straight answer from their parents.  My kids are eye rollers and arguers because of all of the dumb answers they get at home and the arguments that ensue when they ask questions.  The point is simple.  Don't every answer a question your child asks.

The problems is that great parents have been not answering questions since the birth of their child, and their child now has between 4 and 10 years of thinking experience.   A parent who just discovers that their child has no thinking skills needs A Emergency Fix-It plan.

There are a variety of things going on when a child is figuring things out:  patience, working memory, figuring out skills, and cheating.   If your child is missing any of these, telling your child "read the question again" is going to be frustrating for both the child and the parent.  I took this approach and I don't recommend it anymore until you are sure patience and working memory are both there.

Rule #1:  All reading of any type is good so none of this applies to reading.  Of course you want your child to gravitate to thoughtful challenging reading material, but this is a completely separate problem.

Rule #2:  If your child is doing problems that could take a top student 10 seconds to do, throw them away.  Throw the whole workbook away.  These problems are ruining your child.  I'd rather have my 5 year old spend a day figuring out what 5 x 7 is than doing 4 + 3.   The ideal curriculum is one problem and 15 minutes for age 4 going up to 30 minutes for age 7 or 8.  After that, the time age equation doesn't mean anything.

Rule #3:  Don't ever, ever, ever answer any questions.   Ask your own questions, figure them out together, read the question together, draw pictures, have your child make up their own question instead, but don't ever ever read questions.

Rule #4:  Your child is at a certain skill level so work step-by-step to go from complete spoon feeding to independence.  If you have a really hard problem, like one of my problems, the child may not have what it takes to get the whole thing done on their own.  Look for a 5 minute figuring out task for your child and do the rest.  Here are all of the things that go into fully answering question.  Write this list down and post it for you and for your child.  Start with the child doing one of these steps properly. Just like when your child was starting to read and picked a single word out of the sentence to read and you read the rest.  Just remember, when you are doing the rest, you need to display dumbness, ineptitude, confusion, bafflement and other such behaviors.   These behaviors are the key as I mentioned in a previous article, not because I just made them up, but because of really powerful research.  If you are not totally baffled, and your child is, the child will come to the conclusion that being baffled is a bad thing, when in fact being baffled is most of math.

  1. Read the question
  2. Read it again
  3. Identify unknown vocabulary words, look them up
  4. Draw a picture to organize thoughts and understand the question
  5. Organize the question in the sub-problems or devise another solution strategy
  6. Calculate
  7. Check calculations (aka do again) to make sure they are correct
  8. Check to see if the answer is correct
  9. Read it again to see what was missed
  10. Do it again
If you can make your child comfortable doing #1 and then one other step except for step 6 which doesn't count, then you're on your way to a capable child.

If you don't have material that requires these 10 steps plus more, you are at a significant disadvantage and you need to get some better material.  If your child is in second grade, we're hurrying as fast as we can.  My fifth grader just did 12 of the ridiculously hard "F" questions which make the cognitive skills test look ridiculously easy and my 2nd grader did 10 more questions today (he already has mastered the list above).

One parent I know makes their child clear the table after dinner and do the dishes.  My children are so overwhelmed by this onerous task that they spend 25 minutes complaining and we got no actual work out of them.  So we started with "take your empty glass to the kitchen" and 6 months later we can get 75% of the table cleared by one child if one parent helps.   Getting to 100% on math should take a lot less time.


  1. Wondering if you have any special plans or winter break? academic or activities? my kids are bored already on day 2.

    1. You can see my post on this topic. Every morning I leave ridiculously hard math and a list - piano, trumpet, reading, school project. They have to do this list before they get their 30 minutes on the computer. Either they do it and the rest of the day goes smoothly, or they don't do it and hide from my wife who will remind them. Either way, everyone wins.