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Not so long ago my fifth-grade child turned in a sloppy book report and brought home a poor grade.  I started in with a lecture on taking pride in your work and soon enough I had worked into a lather about taking your time, checking your work and that sloppy work was unacceptable.  As I built to a crescendo, I realized that my child hadn’t gotten a word in edgewise in about 10 minutes.  Nor had she looked up at me.  Eighty percent of what I said had not registered.  She had probably disengaged from my 100 mph lecture and was simply awaiting the pronouncement of a punishment or for me to stop talking.

I vowed to revamp my strategy for the next time.

When I do all the talking, I come away with no real sense of the nature of the problem and how to best fix it.  My child reverts to silence and the occasional ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.  This denies me the two things that I — and all parents — need most:  more information as to what exactly is going wrong and secondly for the child to learn the lesson and remember it long enough to put in an improved performance at the next opportunity.

A few weeks later, I found a school test with a bad grade written in red in my child’s schoolbag.  This was my chance.

The fouled up math test wasn’t complicated or tricky.  Straightforward equations, wrong answers.  I started out with a simple, “Tell me what happened here?” and handed my child the test.  “I rushed through it and didn’t check my work.”  I asked if we had ever discussed this problem in the past.  “Yes.”  So you agree that we have dealt with this problem in the past and it still isn’t fixed.  Is that something that me as a parent should be concerned about?  She said, “Yes.” Tell me why I should be concerned.  “Because if I rush through, then I will get things wrong and a bad grade.”

I felt like a football coach breaking down the game film at halftime and making adjustments in the locker room before the second half.  My child and I proceeded to go through what happened on that test step-by-step with me asking the questions and she providing the answers. It felt like a genuine give-and-take.  If she could successfully present me with a valid reason why poor performance on this test should not raise parental concerns, then I was prepared to let her off scot-free.  But as expected she knew where my questions were heading and preemptively confessed to the problem, explained that she is too distracted by her friends in the classroom, and told me she needs to focus better.  She then came up with a suitable punishment: no Facebook or cellphone until she could demonstrate that the problem was fixed.

I became a convert to the second approach.  I came away with a much clearer understanding of why she makes easy errors on tests that had left me scratching my head.  By explaining herself in her own words, this (I hope) thus lessened the chances of a repeat performance.  I don’t have to worry about the punishment fitting the crime because my child had confessed to the crime, described in detail how the crime was committed and then levied the punishment.  Lastly, if this problem resurfaces, I can say, “Remember when you told me ….” and be confident that indeed she will remember her own words.  And if I have to take even stronger measures, I can simply say, “We did it your way last time and now we are going to do it my way.”

But if my revamped strategy works, hopefully it won’t come to that.

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