Why Parents Should Act as Consultants

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You just have to study more. Work harder. That’s it.

Just buckle down, put in more time, and you will get the grades you want! Right?

Perhaps you have heard these statements before. Well, my response is this: “Kudos for your willingness to work hard.” And this: “maybe.” However, the questions remain: Is putting in the time really equivalent to hard work? Does hard work always mean the mastery of material?

A statement about mastery. Junior year should be harder than sophomore. Freshman year should bring challenges you didn’t face in middle school. If not, boy, somebody may be wasting your time. We don’t grow without being stretched, and we won’t look for new solutions if we don’t have current problems. Just as school (and any activity) should be increasingly challenging (Little League should be easier than high school sports, and college should be even more competitive), students should be continually increasing their level of sophistication as learners (college players being not just bigger and stronger but more skilled than their younger selves).

School is not just about learning more and more complex material and developing deeper critical thinking skills. School is about developing increasing mastery as learners.

If school is becoming difficult in ways that are tough to handle, or if you feel like you are working harder and harder just to keep up, consider a gentle exploration of not only how hard you are working, but how. And, maybe when. Insanity, as the saying goes, is doing things the same way and expecting different results. Before redoubling your efforts with the same methods and making yourself crazy as well, ask, “Is there another way to do this?” (Whatever “this” is.)

Fortunately, today, we do not need our own army of experts (though they could possibly help). What we truly need is the inclination to ask important questions such as:

  • “What is the best way to do this?”
  • “How should I tackle this next project?”
  • “How do other people prepare for tests, improve their writing, or memorize most easily?”
  • “How can I be more focused and efficient?”

There are, of course, limits to the amount of time and energy we can spend on any given project. In my experience, the students and families who are feeling on top of their game do not simply work harder than others. They step back from time to time to look at how things are unfolding and think about how they might. So, with two months of school behind us, now might be a great time to have a checkup or check in. If the start of school has brought new challenges, don’t be concerned. And, if I may, allow me to suggest some ideas.

In a great piece by Sue Shellenbarger, Before You Study, Ask for Help, we and some other educators shared tips for becoming a more successful learner. Some of these ideas may work great for your son or daughter. But, some may fall flat. To improve the chance that your kids will consider new methods without getting defensive, here’s one piece advice that will help anyone and anyone’s child: Think of yourself as a consultant rather than a manager (or the teacher).

As many of you have already learned, kids (especially teens) don’t always receive parental advice with the enthusiasm with which we parents offer it. As parents, when we feel rebuffed or see our advice rejected, it is easy to feel more concerned, annoyed, or disrespected, leading us to push kids even more, which in turn makes them less likely to hear us.

And, before you offer, ask.

One phrase you might try (I use this with my kids, the kids I tutor and the parents I speak with) is “would you like my advice on that?” or “May I make a suggestion?” If your son or daughter says “No thanks, Dad,” well, then, there you have it. In my experience, though, kids will often circle back later out of curiosity. Or, the next time they may say yes, because you respected their no the first time around. Getting their buy-in will help you and your kids work collaboratively, increasing the odds that they’ll be able to leave behind old ways and adopting new ones as they grow and develop as learners.

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Ned Johnson

President & Tutor-Geek

Ned Johnson is the president and founder of PrepMatters. A professional tutor-geek since 1993, Mr. Johnson has devoted in excess of 35,000 hours in one-on-one test prep for nearly the entire alphabet of tests. His experience includes work with all ages and abilities in preparation for SSAT and ISEE to ACT and SAT to GMAT, GRE and LSAT.

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