My Father wrote my English Paper… and I only got a C!

school lockers

As a high school principal, my husband brought home countless amusing stories, but one that stays with me was about a father who disputed his son’s English assignment grade. The father adamantly declared it was worth much more than the 65% it received. The teacher who was present at the meeting explained why she gave it a lower mark. Incensed, the dad finally blurted out that in fact he had written the essay and was very insulted with the evaluation. The teacher and my husband responded that since he–and not his son–was the true author of the paper it would now receive a zero.

As an educator and mother of four (who are now finished university and involved in various professions), there were many times my children asked for help. As parents we want to see our kids succeed, but we need to make sure it is them who are succeeding and not us. Certainly we can support and assist them. But the question is how far do we go to “help?”

I remember my close friend calling to tell me that her daughter had won her class speech presentation and was going to the finals. My friend was thrilled because she had “spent so much time doing it for her.”

A few years later one of our sons was voted his public school’s valedictorian. As an English teacher, I could have written his speech. Instead we sat down and discussed ideas. We talked about how to grab your audience in the first two minutes of your speech and how to use an analogy, like comparing education to growing a garden. We also discussed the “bouquets” that resulted. At no point did I write a word, but instead made him think and produce. We planted ideas together but he did the rest. My husband and I were congratulated at the ceremony by his teachers and attendees saying they had never heard such a wonderful address and did he do it all on his own? We were proud to say yes.

My friend’s daughter eventually brought home the trophy, but who really earned it? And, what did she learn? In later years she struggled in school, especially when her mother was was not there to “do it for her.”

So, where do we draw the line? How can we effectively help our children to succeed without doing it for them? Here are some suggestions:

  • Teach them how to use available resources
  • Expose them to stimuli (travel, art, books, interesting people)
  • Encourage them to be expressive
  • Discuss, discuss, discuss!
  • Make sure they clearly understand the assignment
  • Warn them about plagiarism
  • Guide them to choose topics that grab their interest
  • Help them to manage their time and focus
  • Break down the assignment into reachable mini-goals
  • Teach them to self edit (you can edit but only to point out mistakes and areas for improvement. Don’t rewrite for them.)
  • Never expect a tutor do the work, rather to help your child think and correct mistakes (and explain the difference to your child)
  • Know your children’s capabilities and never make them feel inferior
  • Do not compare your child to siblings/others
  • Don’t expect perfection; the teacher doesn’t
  • Praise their accomplishments
  • Always treat a mark or grade as a learning curve and discuss how they can improve the next time
  • Never blame the results on the teacher

Many of us are experts in areas and it may be difficult to hold back. Scientists may find it easier to help their children with their science project by doing it for them. Why not take them to your place of work? Let them discover exactly what you do, research it and then do their own project. Give the equipment/background needed and let them discover. There is a difference between guidance and doing.

Our children never hesitated to ask us for advice but they have become independent adults and I truly believe it’s because we let them do it on their own. Not everything always worked out as successfully as they wished, but they learned to improve, to create, to take criticism and to strive to be better. Just as you hold a hand, prop a back and offer encouraging cheers while your baby learns to sit, crawl, stand and walk, so your child will learn to read, write, problem solve, grasp new concepts, and complete assignments with support from you. Sometimes they’ll fall but, more importantly, they’ll have learned how to get back up on their own.