Updated: Oct 7, 2022
Let’s imagine that your high school sophomore comes home from school and asks if he can go over to his friend’s house. A typical response to a question like that would probably be, “Do you have any homework?” After which, your kid will likely roll his eyes and say something like,
“No mom. I’m good. I just have a history test tomorrow but I already know it all. I just need to look over my notes one more time.”
Now, your knee-jerk reaction might be to start a mini-lecture about how “work first and play later” is a better way to do things. Or you may feel the urge to start in about how your kid already has a C in this class and you got a notification this morning about some missing English and you know he has a science lab to write up for Friday.
Except, right about now, your kid has promptly stopped listening to you as your voice turns into the teacher in Charlie Brown.
After reading the book, "The Gift of Failure" by Jessica Lahey, I became a solid believer that when you tell your kid what to do and how to do it, their frontal lobe disengages and they become “doers” rather than “thinkers”. Doers are accustomed to having people make plans for them. They’re passive learners who tend to wait for an adult to prompt them to get things done. They begin to believe that the reason you’re telling them what to do is that you don’t think they can figure it out on their own. Eventually, they decide it’s just better if you do their thinking because whenever they try, it’s not a good plan anyway, so what’s the use?
What if I told you there was a way to trick them into making responsible and reasonable decisions AND they would think that they did it all on their own!? Well, the good news is that there definitely is! The bad news is that, if you like to be in control, it’s going to be hard to hold your tongue (at first).
HELP YOUR KID BECOME A ‘DOER’
Let’s take a look at this completely fictional conversation between Mom and Max. He wants to go hang out with a friend and his mom wants him to consider his responsibilities before agreeing. Before reading this blog post, Mom would have told Max what to do, but now that she knows that there might be a more effective way, she gives it a try.
Mom: You have a history exam tomorrow, right?
Max: Yeah. But it’s easy. I already know it.
Mom: Sweet, what’s your plan for proving that?
Mom: Well, you’re going to Sam’s, right?
Mom: OK, so when do you want to show me what you know? Before or after Sam’s?
Max: What? What do you mean, show you? You mean like quiz me?
Mom: Ooooh, good idea!
Max: I don’t know. Let me think.
INSIDE MAX’S BRAIN
Notice here that Max now gets to do his own thinking and make his own plan. He’s in charge (or at least feels in charge), which is always preferable to being told what to do. Now, he has to stop and think to make a plan. First, he needs to consider what time it is. Then, he has to decide how long he can hang out before needing to be home for dinner. He knows that dinner is usually at 6:00 and his mom likes to watch TV after dinner and go to bed kind of early. He figures that waiting until later might not work because if he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows then he’ll have to stay up late and won’t get started on the science lab that he *forgot* to mention to his mom. Yikes, then he remembers the notification he got about a missing English assignment. He’s already done it, he just forgot to submit it on Classroom. All this thinking has him wondering if he really has time to go to Sam’s, but he’s not going to admit that!
Max: OK. I’ll prove it right now. Then I can hang out at Sam’s for longer. After dinner, I’ll have time to submit my missing English and then work on some other stuff (aka – the unmentioned science lab).
Of course, this is the real world, so it’s not likely to go as smoothly at first, but it will get better! The more you ASK, the more they THINK. Consider for a moment the time management, working memory, and planning involved in making a plan. Consider the science behind asking rather than telling. For each plan your child makes his frontal lobe fires off, creating more and more neural pathways to independence. Without the opportunity to think and plan, Max might begin to internalize thoughts like, “Well, she must not think I can do this. I’m not good at deciding how to do things. I let my mom do that for me.”
IT WILL TAKE TIME, BUT IT WILL BE WORTH IT!
As you adjust to this new way of thinking, be ready for some rather uncomfortable moments. There most definitely will be mistakes made. Things won’t be done the way you might like. Your kid will probably make some, really, really ridiculously bad plans and some things may slip through the cracks in the process. But, that’s OK because, at the same time, he’ll be using his newly discovered, badass brain to be a “thinker” and not just a “doer”.