In my ten years of teaching mathematics, I have had the privilege of teaching over 1000 students, many of whom I got to know really well. I’ve taught a variety of personalities and abilities and each student has taught me something about myself. All of these thousands of teaching hours and thousands of interactions with students have taught me some valuable insights that I hope will benefit your parenting.

1.    Kids love to learn

I’ve met students who are lazy learners, stubborn learners or reluctant learners, but in the end they’ve all shown me in one way or another that they enjoy learning something, even if only for the feeling they get when they get a question right.

Last year I taught a student who was the most sulky 15 year old I have ever met. I can usually break through sulky and stubborn behaviour, but I couldn’t with her. She wanted me to know that she despised me and this class and consequently I got a lot of attitude from her every day. You could say she made each lesson unpleasant. But, when she thought my attention was elsewhere, I witnessed her interacting with the work we were doing, getting help from her friends and helping them in return. She clearly didn’t want my input, and for whatever reason had a significant chip on her shoulder, but she wanted to learn. She still wanted to achieve. She still wanted to understand how things worked.

It is human nature to want to learn. Your child might seem completely disinterested in school, but they are not disinterested in learning. The key is to find out how your child wants and needs to learn and then address this as best you can.

2.    Kids feel safer and more secure with boundaries

Most people believe that teenagers hate boundaries and want to break them at every opportunity. My experience has been that teenagers want to know where the boundaries lie, whether they are fair and whether they are consistent. Once they are satisfied that they are fair and consistent, the boundaries no longer bother them. They know that they are being treated equally and when they feel the boundaries established are fair, they then realise that they have been created out of care and concern.

Let me use a scene from Jurassic Park to explain. When the creator of the park takes his guests on a tour, they ask him about the fences. He explains that they are electrified, but the dinosaurs keep testing the fences methodically, looking for weaknesses. This is definitely what happens in every classroom and in every household. When you set up new boundary conditions, kids will naturally look for weaknesses. In the classroom students will check for weaknesses by trying to negotiate, by seeing if the teacher remembers what they said yesterday and by seeing if it applies to all members of the class. Some students will try day after day and week after week to break through a boundary. But in the end, once they realise the boundary is permanent their interest in breaking through wanes and they then return their focus where you need it to be, to their work.

If you’ve ever seen the Super Nanny you’ll know that this rings true. Keeping your resolve on first establishing these boundaries takes hard work and effort. But once established, children are calmer and happier because they know that elements of their existence are known and predictable, and they feel safe and secure.

3.    Kids love and value achievement and hard work

Kids need to feel the satisfaction of success just as much as adults. As I’ve written previously, research suggests that we feel happiest when we are challenged and have the skills to meet the challenge successfully. And much to the surprise of many people, they don’t mind doing the hard work to get that feeling of success.

Just like adults, you can’t fool kids with busy work. If a subject requires lots of note taking listening and filling out worksheets, kids don’t feel they have an active role in their learning and don’t feel they are making any progress towards achievement. But when they are engaged in work where they can see their own mastery developing, they can concentrate and persevere for weeks.

This idea can be integrated in the home. For example, instead of asking your child to clean their room, have them redecorate or reorganise their furniture. As they go about achieving the look they want, they will want to clean and organise as they go to accomplish the goal properly. Give them ownership of a task with a satisfying outcome and they are more likely to work hard and with dedication to achieve the goal.

4.    Teenagers crave direction and meaning

When I talk with my teacher mentor, Phil, about the work we do, we talk about how we drive and direct students. It’s a difficult concept to explain, but the most successful teachers have the ability to direct their students towards knowledge and achievement and drive them forward.

Most people feel that teenagers want to be left to their own devices and want to travel in the opposite direction to the adults in their life. In fact this isn’t true. What they want is a meaningful reason to choose one way over another or to have to find their own way.

In the classroom, my message to students is clear: trust me to teach you, follow my lead, work hard and you will be rewarded. Through my actions and through the boundaries I establish, students sense that following my direction is useful and they go with the flow and let me drive them forward.

In your own parenting you need to be this direction and this driving force. For example, instead of just telling your child not to do drugs, direct them towards health and healthy pursuits. Get them interested in learning about nutrition, find fitness activities that interest them and help them develop a pride and an appreciation for their bodies. With a focus on meaning and purpose, rather than empty messages, your kids will want to follow your lead.

5.    Kids don’t need you to be their friend, but they need to be understood

Increasingly as teachers we meet parents who are scared of their kids. It is worrying how often parents call us to talk to their children about something that they feel afraid to talk about. A few years ago a colleague was called by a parent because she wanted him to tell her daughter that she couldn’t and shouldn’t attend a party that the daughter had been invited to. Needless to say he informed the parent that it was her job to parent even through the tough times.

Parents want to avoid being the parent in the relationship because they are scared that their kids won’t like them and taking a firm line will create discord and disharmony in the home. Teachers who are more intent on being friends with their students, rather than the teacher, fail dismally in their role. Sure, at first the kids like them because they’re heaps of fun. But when it comes time to learn and get things done, they can’t get their students to do any work and the students lose any respect for the teacher and chaos reigns.

To gain your child’s respect, they need to know that you have knowledge, skills and abilities that you can teach them and that you can use to guide them. They need to also know that you understand them and that you really know who they are. When they trust your ability as an adult in their lives they will appreciate your input. But if they sense that you are pandering to their whims and that they control you, you will have lost them and their respect.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these “parenting tips” and any tips of your own you’d like to share with us.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk / Foter / CC BY-NC