Thursday, May 24, 2012

When Internal Desire Does Not Result in Goals Attained

I was the loosiest-goosiest of radical unschoolers when we began our homeschooling journey, back when my oldest was two and I'd chosen not to enroll him in preschool like the other college educated stay at home mothers I was surrounded by. Back then I believed the unschooling mothers who said their kids buckled down all on their own and got stuff done simply when the kid chose to. I am still waiting for that day to arrive. I see glimpses sometimes but with my oldest at nearly 15 I thought the day would have arrived sooner than this.

I have come to believe that this issue is one of personality not just maturity or related to developmental stages. Don't we all know the youngest of kids who has a huge internal drive to get stuff done? They make things happen even when we think they should be thinking about just playing and enjoying their carefree life. Don't we all know other kids who are motivated by grades and scores and love ranking? They crave it and thrive off of it. Some of those kids memorize statistics of sports teams and athletes for sheer enjoyment and seemingly without effort.

(For in-depth discussion of the different motivators that people have read the book about kids and learning: The Motivation Breakthrough by Richard LaVoie. My book review of that book is here.)

I have also seen the most radical unschoolers abandon homeschooling when the failures started adding up: they entered school when the situation at home was just not working. Then they were in an environment where the pendulum swung to the exact opposite extreme. The family's choice to not have some kind of middle ground in their "home school" with regard to assignments, deadlines, or goals led to their kids having to deal with everything that the parents hated about school that drove them to give homeschooling (unschooling) a try.

My oldest is the kid who wants things done and who can see the steps to get there but doesn't always do what has to be done to make it happen. This kid sees the work involved and does not always do the right thing to get what he wants. This is a personality thing and I see it in other kids I know, so it's not some defect that only my kid has. I have said before that this type of kid is not a good fit for radical unschooling or just unschooling as it is defined today. The best success stories of cool and impressive unschoolers seem to follow a pattern. They are both curious about things and teach themselves things joyfully, things that they choose to learn about AND they are internally driven and self-disciplined enough to actually get stuff done that needs doing to get what they want. They are able to suck it up and learn the hard boring stuff if it helps them get to some goal they have in life.

Unschoolers often will tell you if the desire is there the kid will just on their own, find a way to do what needs doing to finish out a task or to take the learning to its logical conclusion. These stories are told as if it was all on the teen and as if the parent was completely hands off. I am not always sure the parent is telling the whole truth in their stories.

For example one radical unschooling mother I know who said the same theories that I just shared has a child who was diagnosed with some serious learning disabilities was unable to read textbooks. He had a goal to go to college early and get a certain degree so he could do a certain career. He enrolled as a community college student in a dual credit program (going to college in the high school years and also earning college credit.) The mother told me she was reading aloud the college textbook to him in order for him to learn the content since he could not read it with his own eyes and process it in his mind from printed text. They also found a study manual that the college kids didn't know about which went along with that text and he used that with his mother's direct teaching in order to prepare him to take the tests which he was getting A's on. I would argue though that the student was not executing the plan all on his own, his mother was right by his side helping him every step of the way, nor was he doing independent learning. Thus she was now doing what other homeschoolers did with their kids in elementary school and middle school.

I think this is faulty logic, this idea that if a teen wants to get something done they will move mountains to get it done all on their own. I know a bunch of kids who know who they are and what they want to do but they fail to actually do what it takes to get the job done. They fail on the execution of the project. The desire is there but the willingness to actually do all that has to be done is lacking.

My kids have never been to school so the arguments that some give such as, "My child's time in school taught him to work only for a reward of a grade or a score to reach for and that impeded their ability to develop self-motivation from within." I don't have that situation in my family. There have to be kids in school who are succeeding only thanks to the fact that someone is forcing them to be there and do that work and because they have deadlines for quizzes, tests, and projects.

At nearly 15 I am hearing the same arguments from my older son that he's used his entire life. He wants to start attending community college for certain courses instead of learning them at home or through online classes but he does not want to do review work to brush up for the exam. I thought of having him take the test cold and see what happens but I just found out the testing policy mandates 30 days break in between test retakes. If he fails the first go-round he would have to wait until we're back from the long summer vacation to re-take it which would be right before the semester begins. I truly cannot see him passing in this winging-it fashion with enough time to get into one decent class for the fall, even if he were to pass it on the second attempt.

At first, in February and March I left the door open and gave him assignments to spend an hour each day on test prep but he refused to comply. I had a lot on my plate and chose to not pick that battle to go to war over. He pushed that work off.

The before April 10 (registration opening day) has come and gone and he has not been tested yet. That was a mooshy deadline that was ideal but doubtful, especially given the unplanned for tonsil removal surgery and the recovery time for that.

Fast forward to the end of April. I gave him some sample tests and he scores lower than 70%. He needs practice on basic test taking skills and simple things like actually reading the directions. He thinks he is somehow exempt from reading the boring (short) directions and tries to use common sense but this leads to wrong answers just because he didn't do what they wanted him to do. So once again, I put test prep on his daily schedule which he put as the lowest priority and due to dilly-dallying was put off and fell off the list undone each day.

In the second week of May I sat my son down and explained the timeframes again. Here are the facts, this is what you need to do, then that result you want will happen, so you will do it, right? No. He chooses not to. This defies logic but people tell me this is typical for the teenage mind. The teenage mind thinks they are above the common ways or that others have to abide by that guideline but they can exempt themselves. It makes no sense.

My son still liked the idea of taking the test cold just to avoid spending any time on test prep. I explained the ramifications and that he may not be able to enroll for the fall semester if he does that. Instead of buckling down based on internal drive he took the new stance that he feels he is inadequate and will fail no matter what, so why bother?

So last week I realized it's back to the drawing board, I rewound to our former days of homeschooling where he liked me to be the teacher sitting next to him and guiding the lesson. I sat him down and he worked at English grammar review with me. When taking the tests cold the scores were not adequate but when doing the review first he reached passable grades and sometimes over 90%. With each error I re-taught and reviewed the reasons why the answer was this not that. We spent 2-3 hours a day doing this which was exhausting. I think he and I would have done better by spreading it out one hour a day over longer time but he has left us with no choice but to cram.

Another deadline was put on us two days ago. We were told via email that the last robotics merit badge meeting would be in 48 hours, this was news to us. Since that day was busy with the home inspection and with my younger son's birthday party, going to a movie and out to dinner after we knew that day was shot. I said that left one weekend day to do it, since it would be ideal to use the weekend for Boy Scout work and have Monday be a regular homeschool lesson day. The robotics merit badge work is supposed to be done independently without me as teacher.

Also previously my husband was working with my son on the Personal Management merit badge where you have to shop for something for the family, make a budget and other tasks, taking the family's opinion into consideration. Although I'd made up a mooshy deadline my husband and my son both had failed to meet it when left to their own devices. My son has been working on this merit badge for seven months now (much too long). This must be finished before he can make Eagle rank, so it is not optional but the hard deadline for getting it done is his 18th birthday which is about three years away. My son wants to make Eagle at age 15 so he can spend time doing other pursuits such as more time doing the robotics team and more time training for the rowing team. So yesterday morning, I told my husband that he had to work with our son in get it done that day so it could be signed off the following day.

After church, I told my son to do the Boy Scout work first then when he's done he could do stuff like play the two hours of xBox360 on Sunday thing we allow here. My son refused and said he'd do the video games first. We had a power struggle and I pulled my husband aside to say that the kid was his job today because I can't be homeschool parent-teacher taskmaster Monday-Friday then also be the big taskmaster on the weekends. Stick a fork in me, I'm done. My husband let my son have his way and he played the video games first. He also fooled around on the Internet, Facebook, and the other junk that is a timesuck.

So what happened? Just before bedtime my husband and son finished the work on Personal Management, or so they said. Some work was done on Robotics; I assumed he'd finished it. On Monday morning I looked at the Personal Management write-up and it was full of grammar errors, the same stuff that he's been struggling with on the test prep practice tests. We went over it and he fixed it. I guess that's unschool-ish as it is applying grammar in real life? He had to spend time on Monday morning finishing that up, instead of doing homeschool lessons or doing test prep work.

Then when I thought my son was to start his homeschooling work he was doing something else? Guess what? It was the Robotics merit badge work that has a meeting tonight with the work due. I guess he never did finish that yesterday after all. As I write this it has been three hours and he has just finished that merit badge work. So today we lost three hours of school work time due to his procrastination yesterday and putting play before work as a priority.


These are all examples of how even when some teens want a goal fulfilled they choose to take actions that prevent them from meeting the goal. They are their own worst enemy. Some people, maybe even most people, actually need deadlines to make things happen. I have seen this time and again with my son. When no deadline exists we have ended up with a lot of unfinished or half-done projects. Why do some people feel assignments and deadlines are evil or the enemy? I don't get it. Maybe those are the uber internally driven people who get more done left to their own devices than they get done if they are being bossed around to jump through hoops by external parties?

You may still say, "If it's worth doing it will get done -- they will figure it out if it is worth doing." I would disagree. I think this is a personality thing and despite experiencing the natural consequences of failure time after time the lesson seems to not be learned. Some people, after repeated failures, develop poor self-esteem and just stop trying when they actually are capable people who just needed more development with self-discipline. Some people need deadlines and they need the pressure of either being closely supervised or pressure of fear of not meeting a deadline in order to shift their mind to buckle down and exert self-discipline. How many triathlon participants would do that hardcore training if there was no race to prepare for? Hardly any, I bet. The external motivator, the triathlon or the college application deadline is what pushes a person to make the time and put in the work that we'd prefer to put off and do something easier or fun instead.

It is hard when you see your child wanting to fulfill a goal but seeming to not be able to get their all on their own. It is hard to watch kids make mistakes over and over. I have done that in the past and sometimes things are righted but sometimes they are not.

The negative consequences of not getting certain things done are elevated by the time kids are in the high school years. I am not willing to step back and be a passive parent and let my kids fail their way down a path that will have lifelong negative ramifications but on the other hand I'm not a helicopter parent who steps in and does the work for my kid just so they can get it all done either. This is a messy process that involves letting our kids make mistake after mistake and living with failure and disappointment but other times requires more parental intervention with the gentlest pushing that one can get away with in order to help our kids reach their goals.

This is another example of how parenting and homeschooling are both messy processes. Good parents try to help the best we can. We don't neglect our kids and let them flounder and fail all the time yet we are not helicopter parents who do everything for our kids in an effort to save them from ever failing. Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes is the area where kids learn to do what they have to do in order to get to the places they want to be and where they learn do take control of the process themselves and to get things done mostly under their own guidance. Deadlines are not always the enemy; they are sometimes the motivator to make the time and to make the right choices to get stuff done.

Update: Shortly before going to the Boy Scout meeting where the merit badges were going to be reviewed and hopefully approved my son said he felt excited and great about having finished them. Once the procrastination was over and whatever negativity he felt was in the past he felt a sense of accomplishment and pride.


Xa Lynn said...

You have far more patience than I do.

I was one of those kids who saw what I wanted and did everything it took to get it without adult input. It makes it really hard for me to see kids claiming they want something and then not putting in the work as being anything but lazy. My oldest daughter is reward driven - if I tell her what needs to be done, she does it, so that she can then do whatever she really wants to do (the reward for finishing the work is free time). She knows the work comes first and that I will not drive her anywhere, or let her watch any videos or play on her laptop until the work is done. I've been known to confiscate the distractions until the work is done, if either child cannot handle the temptation. Fortunately, that doesn't happen often.
My younger child, however, has big ideas, but no follow-through. And she's quite willing to sneak off before her work is done, even though she loses privileges for it. She sees no connection between her responsibilities and the reward of free time. This drives me nuts. Part of her problem is that if she is not the center of attention, she either starts goofing off until she IS (and not in a good way), or she gets distracted, because no one is there to get her attention back on the task. It is not that she has a short attention span - she can spend 40 minutes in a monologue of a story she is making up on the fly while we are driving down the road, or simply swinging on the swingset, or on a scavenger hunt in the woods.

The older child usually does well with deadlines. The younger child doesn't even remember they exist.

Since I have for the most part taught them things the same way, I have come to the conclusion it is a personality difference, and not a result of homeschooling. If you come up with a solution, please post about it, because I'll try it on my youngest daughter! My current solution is to simply not bail her out anymore - if homeschool isn't done, nothing else is allowed... I won't take her anywhere til it's done, and whatever help I might have given if it had been done in my time frame will not be available after my time frame has passed. This, of course, leads to hissy fits and temper tantrums. I hope she figures it out before I lose my mind!

ChristineMM said...

Hi Xa Lynn,
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You are going to have to learn more patience to deal with your younger.

I think people who have perseverance are few and far between, unfortunately. I thought everyone was like that, because I am like that, but really, I think our world or at least America is filled with people with big dreams who will never do what it takes.

I myself am guilty of having too many ideas and just not enough time or energy to do them all. That nearly kills me to accept. It bothers me to know what it takes to get a thing done then I don't do it, usually as i"m busy with some obligation or doing some higher priority thing.

scimum said...

Christine and Xa Lynn, thank you very much for your comments. I am in contact with a large number of unschoolers and I am very attracted to that idea myself. However, after 9 months of homeschooling my 10 year old I have decided that he does need structure and a lot of guidance and external motivations otherwise he will not get things done. I have recently instigated a system where he has to get his work done before he gets any free time, and he is responding very well to it. I think personality plays a big part in this. I was very academic but was always the student who would leave projects until the night before the final deadline. In contrast, my sister-in-law was always very organised and got half of her assignments done early so she had more free time without the work hanging over her head.

I will definitely be looking for a copy of the book you mentioned.

ChristineMM said...

Interesting discussion. I just updated the blog post to add a link to my 2009 book review of The Motivation Breakthrough. It may be available in your local library. There are chapters about the motivators that people have. You don't need to read the whole 400 page book if it is not interesting to you or irrelevant to your situations.

After reading that it really hit home for me that I feel that with homeschooling we need to take advantage of the customization freedom we have. If we only force down onto our kids what we think is the best educational method or the coolest or what our friends are doing then we are no better than schools with their one method fits all system.

I think some parents are too prideful about doing the method they think is good (maybe for them or what they wished that they had) rather than doing what is right for each child.

And if kids in the family are different it is not fair to force some of them to use a system that is terrible or ineffective for them and does not result in learning.

It pained me to let go of unschooling as I loved the philosophy, my kids just don't do well with what I'd call the most radical unschooling method. Yet I have others who tell me that because I'm helping my kids fulfill their goals for themselves that it what unschooling is.

Well in the end I need to help my kids learn and debating what the definition of unschooling is or trying to prove if we are doing it right or wrong is just silly.

Thanks for commenting everyone.

Diane said...

I can so identify. My almost 13yr old is the same. Everything happens at the last minute, rewards do not work or even punishments for that matter. She also does better with a more structured homeschool life but I so love the ideal of unschooling. My daughter comes up with so many great ideas but rarely finishes anything. No motivation at all. Even though you have a rough time of it I am glad there are others in the same boat as myself and I am not all alone.

Ellen said...

Christine, I enjoyed reading this post. My eldest child sounds a lot like your son, especially the "own worst enemy" part. I've always known unschooling would not work for us. Given the choice, she'd rather play outside, play Wii, and eat Twinkies all day (if I allowed them in the house). She don't need no education.

Ergo, she has no choice.