How I helped my kid get to school. Gentle interrogation vs “You’re in big trouble, young lady.”
There are some who say that they don’t like Mondays. I like Mondays. I’ve never had a job that made me hate Mondays, even when that job is parenting.
Yesterday, my family and I followed our usual routine for a school day. I woke up the kids, then I submerged into the basement to write while my wife got them ready for school. It was cold outside, so we put on our jackets and boots and we walked to the school bus. We were fine waiting for the bus, but just as the kids were starting to board, my older daughter Emily froze up. She grabs my leg and starts to cry.
I wonder what’s going on. I asked her what’s happening and she would not say. My younger daughter gets on the bus without noticing what happened until she is seated, looking at us through the window. The bus leaves and the rest of us go home.
On the way home, there is some interrogation, but nothing is revealed. At home, my wife is unhappy. She begins to lay into Emily for not getting on the bus. She expresses her displeasure. She threatens Emily with staying home forever and ever. I take Emily down to my office to talk.
In my office, Emily rolls up like a ball on the floor, unwilling to show her face. I ask her gentle questions to see where there is a problem to be solved. This is where I go. After many trials I have learned that when there is kid trouble, to assume there is a problem to be solved, not some nefarious scheme because my mom says that kids are not that sophisticated.
I work from home, so I boot my work computer because it takes a while for it to boot. I continue to talk with my daughter while the computer is booting, mindful of the time. She is not yielding. My wife comes down for another crack at Emily, to see if she can apply more verbal force to get Emily to go to school. My wife uses words like forever, and stay at home, and no Christmas. No mas.
As I watch my wife do her thing, something that she learned from her Vietnamese culture, an authoritarian culture, I was mindful of a few things. I was mindful that my wife was doing what she knew how to do. I was mindful that my daughter carries the genes of one of the most stubborn and unreasonable men I have ever known, my dad, when he decides to be that way. I knew in my heart that all efforts to compel my daughter to go to school would fail. I knew of a better way.
So once my wife gave up in disgust with my “soft ways”, I really went to work on Emily. I had cleared an hour at work to be late. I continued to gently talk to Emily. I explained that my goal here is not pain and punishment, my goal here to get her to relax enough to talk about what she feared at school today.
COVID? Nope. The teacher? Nope. A class bully? Nope. A math test…She was afraid of a math test. What kind of a math test? The dreaded word problems! Oh, I know word problems! I loved word problems in school. I had difficulty with them at first, but then I learned to break them down and solve them. When I was a kid, I took a private pleasure as the class groaned upon hearing that they were being pressed into service to solve word problems.
She relaxed enough to describe in more detail, what kind of word problems she’d have to do. So I arranged to do one together with her. I searched for some online, but she said that what I had found was different than what she was doing in school. So I asked Emily to give me an example. She did.
I fired up my word processor, LibreOffice Write, to jot down an example to try. Something like this:
Richie has 58 balls. He has 19 basketballs, 13 baseballs, 3 volleyballs, and 6 tennis balls. How many ping pong balls did he have?
Then I got a piece of paper and showed her how to solve for X, the number of ping pong balls that Richie had. Then I realized that when I did word problems in school, I was learning algebra. I guess they didn’t want to scare us with the word “algebra!” so they didn’t use that word until high school.
She had said that the teacher told her to start with the total. There is always a total. So I took the problem and wrote it out as an equation. Something like this:
I told her that she’s learning algebra. She was unfazed. I told her that X is for the ping pong balls. She’s only in second grade, maybe that’s too early. But I also told her that we need to break down word problems into pieces that we can use.
We have a total, 58. We have an unknown, the ping pong balls, or X. All we needed to do then, is to add up what we know, the number of the other balls, and then subtract them from the total to get the number of ping pong balls.
So I added up what we knew above, and arrived at 41 for the number of balls we know about.
I even showed her how to break them down to make it easier to add the numbers together. But she showed me how they do it in school these days. They draw lines and boxes and stuff, and that was kind of foreign to me. I just told her that if she has a method that works for her, to use it. What matters is that we get the right answer.
Once we had the number for the known variables, I told her that we can subtract that from the total to get the number of ping pong balls (17!). I asked her what her fear level was on a scale of 1–10 with 10 being the greatest. she was at a 3. Ok, better. Ready to go to school yet? Nope.
I told her about my experience doing math problems in 2nd grade, just like my daughter. I told her that I had a really cool math teacher from Japan, Mr. Higocki. He would teach us math during the week and then on Friday, we’d have a math test. The math test consisted of 30 math problems of addition and subtraction of one and two-digit numbers, within something like 20 minutes, I don’t remember the exact time. But what I also remember is that if we got 100% and finished the test before the time was up, we got free ice cream after school on Friday.
I only needed to see the kids eating creamy, sweet, and free! ice cream one time to get motivated. I became obsessed with acing that test. I don’t know how long it took me to do it. But I know that I did it. I can remember getting the ice cream at the front of the line, saying “thank you” with a big dopey happy grin, and walking home while eating the ice cream.
Telling that story to my daughter seemed to help her relax. We did a few more word problems. With each word problem, she did more and more on her own until she could do one herself with a little coaching. I asked her again about her fear factor. “9”. “We’ll do one more and then you go to school, ok?” “OK”.
She got her shoes on. She got her jacket on. She got her backpack on. She got in the car. We went to the school and I let her watch videos on my phone on the way as an inducement to help her calm down. I parked the car in front of the entrance, but she wouldn’t get out. She handed me my phone. She wanted me to escort her to the door. We went to the door together.
I helped her get to school even though she still had some fear. I helped her to face the test even though she wasn’t sure she could do the math test. I considered the possibility that she just needed someone to hold her hand and walk her through the fear. I did that.
She found me again after she came home. How was the test? Thumbs up! There were only 2 of those word problems on the test. Huh. but she got through it and she was OK, and I got her to get through it with a lot less drama and hurt than there would have been if I had not conducted any investigation to see what the problem was. I assumed ignorance before malice. I assumed that she needed help. I did not read her mind to infer that she just wanted to play hooky.
This is how kids are. This is also how little kids in adult bodies are, too. When I’m dealing with people, I try to make more observations than assumptions. I am mindful that everyone is just doing the best they can. If they did better one day and not so well today, I make no assumptions about motivation, other than, the motivation is there, the skill is not.
This isn’t the first time I was able to resolve challenging behavior by solving problems with my kids. I’ve been doing this for years now. I believe that this tiny seed that I planted will lead to a more humane and just society. I do this not because this is how the world works. I solve problems with my kids to resolve challenging behavior because this is how I want the world to be. This is how I want to be treated by other people. I want to live in a world populated by educated, civilized people, and I want my kids to live in that world, too.