Memos from the Middle

Smack-Dab in the Middle of Motherhood

What I Learned about Myself while Teaching My Kid to Read

I’ve been teaching the princess how to read, and because I’m a high school teacher by trade, I can tell you that this has been fraught with both high drama and mistakes on my part. I’ve elicited the help of my aunt, a wonderful retired early elementary teacher, books, websites, and other parents in my circle of friends, but I can honestly say that no singular approach has worked. A healthy dose of common sense, trial and error, and varied approaches has been making all the difference, and our learning time together is all the more enjoyable for both of us.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • I have high expectations even for little kids. I don’t believe that kids do great things with people surrounding them echoing “the minimum will be just fine.” I’ve seen the results of that at the high school level, and I can tell you that I want my kids striving for academic excellence even if they are not always successful. Very few children have intrinsic motivation; it’s up to their families, schools, and communities to help them develop that trait, so when I tell you that it isn’t enough for me that my little girls learn to word call or sound out words, don’t chastise me. I want them to discern meaning, make predictions, compare and contrast, draw conclusions, etc. In short, I want them to comprehend, and that is a skill that will take them a lot farther in life.
  • I still have a lot to learn about stress management. Teaching a kid to read is hard work. Perhaps, somewhere deep down, I realized this, but I can say that I have a new-found appreciation for the work of early childhood teachers. Every little thing distracts kids. They don’t have the stamina of older kids, and they need constant verbal encouragement and praise. If you’re not in the mood to give so much, table your home lessons until you can be exactly the kind of motivation and support your kid needs. Otherwise, you’ll do nothing more than frustrate her and set back her enthusiasm for reading. When did I realized I was too stressed at the moment to teach?  “Mommy, do you like me today?” Every kid won’t articulate their confusion about your behavior, so check your attitude and get right first; it’ll save a lot of mommy/daddy guilt.

  • I don’t individualize enough. Reading readiness is different for every child. Trying to get the pirate to join in as I worked on sentences with the princess made me a crazy person. I realized when veins were popping out of my neck as I screamed for her to sit down and pay attention that something was wrong on my part. She wasn’t ready for that developmentally, and my forcing her to comply with my wishes wasn’t helping her, her sister, or me. It didn’t mean, though, that she wasn’t ready to learn more. After all, this is the same child who told me that she didn’t think I was being reasonable. I learned to give them each their own “work” at different times of the day so that they each had their mommy time without distractions, competition, or general tomfoolery. My kids, probably like kids everywhere, want and need alone time with each parent.
  • I am doing more than teaching her to read; I’m preparing her for life. Kids need equal opportunities for success and challenge in each lesson. If it’s all challenge, kids may become frustrated feeling as if they can’t ever be successful. If it’s all success, they may be in for a very rude awakening when they encounter a real challenge outside of the home, and they may not know how to handle it or recover. I look at parenting as my opportunity to give them experiences, to the greatest extent possible, that they will encounter in the “real world,” and it’s my job to give them the tools to help them navigate those challenges skillfully.

  • I can do some long-term damage if I’m not careful. I’ve learned to avoid rewards linked to food, money, or anything else that will create a bigger problem down the road. The reality is that learning should be its own reward, and kids need to learn that up front. Kids, though, won’t understand that if you simply explain it to them, so I’ve found that it’s important that I don’t link “learning” to anything more than excitement that the learning has occurred. “Wow, that’s something you didn’t know a few minutes ago! Good job!” or “Would you like to call your grandma and tell her what you learned today?” are great alternatives to candy.
  • I’d rather have hard-working kids over “smart” kids. I’ve learned to avoid praising a child for being “smart.” While it’s true that some kids learn things faster than others or are more talented in certain arenas than others, I’ve also learned that “you’re so smart” has a negative side. When they don’t overcome a challenge as quickly as a previous challenge, they tend to associate that “failure” as being proof that they aren’t smart, so they give up faster, believing that the failure is an unchangeable part of their nature. When they understand that hard work helps them on their quests to learn anything they want to learn, they work harder at challenges to become successful. Carol Dweck, Ph.D., devotes a section of her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success to this concept. It’s worth reading if you’re into that kind of thing.
  • I need help. I have had to consult a lot of different people and do a lot of preparation to see results, and there’s still so much to do to get her to become an independent reader. I sometimes feel like I’m back in school trying to get another degree, but I realize that I can’t figure this stuff out by myself. I have watched my husband in his interactions with the girls, and I realize that I chose a dynamic partner with which to have kids. His approaches, although different, are a great complement to what I’m doing. LeapFrog movies and toys, PBS programming, rhyming games and nursery rhymes all contribute to the overall goal, and embracing them for their teaching power has been very effective and provides the variety that I sometimes lack.

  • I’m a great mom. I’m sure that we all feel at one point or another that our parenting license should be revoked because of some misstep or another, but the truth is that when we are reflective, apologetic, sincere, well-meaning, and involved, we are doing great work. I sometimes forget to celebrate the good and focus to intently on what went wrong. I need to give myself a break and realize more often that I’m doing the best I can and that’s okay.
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2 thoughts on “What I Learned about Myself while Teaching My Kid to Read

  1. You are a great mom and a great teacher. Self reflection has proved it. Sometimes we think our title (mommy or teacher) gives us an advantage, until God throws a wrench in our “well thought out” plans. Then we realize it’s not the lesson plan or the mommy plan that makes for great teaching and learning…it’s God’s grace. I think you’ve learned the most important lessons…recognizing the need for help, doing the best you can, then leave the rest to the Lord!

    • Thank you for both the encouragement and wisdom. This parenting thing is so different from anything else I’ve ever done. The variety of experiences, expectations, and outcomes (intended or otherwise) can be so overwhelming, but you’re right, God’s grace does make the difference, and I’m learning through this walk that I cannot hope to be successful if I take (or attempt to take) all of this on by myself.

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