Be a Better Homework Helper


by Melissa Face

Few words conjure up as many feelings of dread and doom as the word homework does for school-aged children. Many view homework as a daunting task that keeps them from playing outside, hanging out with friends, or watching Netflix. Tales of miserable homework experiences are as timeless as scraped knees and broken hearts. We all have our horror stories of forgotten assignments, incomplete homework, and unforgiving teachers – the ones who gave you an F, despite your incredibly valid excuse.

I teach high school, and I was recently swapping stories with my own parents, both former educators, about homework excuses. Years ago, when my mother was teaching seventh-grade English, one of her students presented the most famous excuse of all time for not having his homework assignment. “He told me his dog ate it,” my mother said. “Then, he reached into his book bag and pulled out a tattered worksheet. Sure enough, it was a little slobbery, and it had bite marks.” My mother was nearly positive he was telling the truth, so she allowed him to make up the assignment.

Among our family of teachers, we have pretty much heard all possible homework excuses: I forgot my notebook. I was absent that day. I left it in my dad’s car. I couldn’t find the page it was on. My computer crashed. There was a death in the family. My printer ran out of ink. I was sick. I had to work. It was stolen. It got wet. I lost my flash drive. In my twelve years of teaching, I have sifted through these excuses, some more plausible than others, and stood next to students while they rummaged through backpacks for homework assignments we both knew did not exist.

In the Beginning

The root of the matter is that homework is disliked by nearly everyone, including parents. And working on homework assignments and inventing excuses for not completing them have become a true family affair. Though I have been assigning homework for more than a decade, I am really just discovering the true nature of this homework animal as a parent. My child is a second grader this year, and he has had homework since he began kindergarten.

After asking my son about his day and trying to talk about highs and lows, next comes, “What do you need to do for tomorrow?” He can usually tell me if he has a story to read, worksheets to complete, or spelling words to study. We check his planner and confirm the details of the assignment, then he gets to work. He starts off enthusiastically, then we fall into the same pattern of complaints about the assignment and what he would rather be doing. We contend with the distractions of his noisy younger sister, squirrels on the patio, and his insatiable hunger.

Despite our attempts to make homework tolerable, there are still nights when the finished product is tear-stained and worn thin from repeated erasing. However, most of the time the homework is done well and without incident. Along the way, we have learned a few tricks to make homework at the elementary school level more manageable:

1. It is essential to be well-equipped with many of the same supplies your child uses at school. Homework at the elementary level often requires coloring, cutting, and glue-sticking. Purchase extra crayons, glue, and scissors, in addition to pencils and paper. And be sure to buy the type of paper your child uses at school in order to practice handwriting with consistency. Keep all homework supplies together in an easily accessible location so finding the supplies doesn’t add to the stress of homework completion.

2. Provide a homework environment that is free from distractions. It is already difficult for young children to concentrate on homework after a full day of school. They need to be away from all electronics and noisy siblings. It is also helpful to have a clean desk or table and to designate that area as the homework spot for the entire school year.

3. Create additional structure by setting a timer for each worksheet or individual task. This is especially helpful for a child who is prone to piddling or daydreaming. The timer can help keep him on task and make completing homework feel a little like a game. You can also provide a small reward as an extra incentive.

4. Include a few breaks throughout the homework session. Three or four worksheets can feel like a lot for a young child. Give him several stretching breaks or a midpoint snack break. Students in elementary school get out of their seats frequently throughout the day, so it’s unrealistic for them to sit for long periods at home without a break.

5. Read books with your child each evening, whether reading is assigned or not. Let your child see you enjoy a book from time to time, as well. It is important to model the skills and behaviors we want our children to develop.

At this young age, my husband and I are helping our second grader with homework by clarifying directions and providing examples, if he needs them. We do not do the assignment for him, and we do not correct the errors he makes on his worksheets. The only exception to our rule is if he has done the entire assignment incorrectly. Then, we explain it again, in a different way, and have him redo it. As a parent, it is difficult to look over your child’s assignment and not fix mistakes when you see them, but it is an important step in raising an independent student.

As Time Goes By

Teaching a child to be accountable for his own schoolwork is essential, and it should be a gradual process that begins in the early grades. It is crucial to remember that you are not helping your child in the long run by completing or correcting assignments for him. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to provide a great deal of help once your child is in middle or high school and subjects become more difficult. Plus, it is simply not your job to do your high school student’s economics, world language, or algebra homework.

In a few years, I am sure my child will bring home an assignment that I’m not comfortable assisting him with. Even though he is just in second grade, I have already pictured this scenario and the helplessness my future self will feel when he asks, “Mom, how do you conjugate an irregular verb in Spanish?” or “Can you help me solve this quadratic equation?” It will be outside my realm of expertise, and though I may be tempted to ask my friends on social media for help or watch a YouTube video on solving quadratics, I am hopeful
that I won’t do those things.

Parents have a visceral need to help their children. And there are many ways to help students at the middle and high school levels without auditing a college algebra course so you can combine like terms and practice completing square roots with him after dinner each night. There are many resources available for older students, and it’s our job to make sure our kids are using them and not depending on us to do their work.

Here are a few strategies to help make homework more manageable for middle school and high school students:

1. For starters, there is no substitute for being in class and hearing a lecture or participating in a discussion. It sounds obvious, but school attendance is essential for academic success, and chronic absenteeism is a problem in many Virginia school systems. Missing school for illness is unavoidable at times, but if your child says, “It’s no big deal if I miss; we aren’t doing anything in class anyway,” you need to dig deeper. It’s either an excuse to avoid something or a symptom of a much bigger problem that should be addressed with school administration.

2. Organization plays a major role in school success. Encourage your child to write down deadlines and assignments in a daily planner (many schools provide them), or keep track of them electronically – or both, if it helps. It doesn’t matter what system your child uses, as long as it works for him.

3. Encourage your child to communicate with his teacher(s) when he is having difficulty with a concept or doesn’t understand an assignment. By high school, students should be able to approach teachers and advocate for themselves. I have received emails from parents letting me know that “Johnny is not prepared for his reading quiz because he didn’t understand the pages of Beowulf he was supposed to read.” While there are many things wrong with this particular scenario, the most concerning is that the student was unable to tell me himself that he was having difficulty comprehending the passage. At the high school level, most of the communication should be taking place between the student and the teacher.

4. If your child missed class or has questions about an assignment, make sure he is using the resources available to him before you become involved. Many secondary teachers maintain websites with links to assignments, and some even post lecture notes and videos for students to review in the event of an absence.

5. Keep tabs on what your child is doing when he is supposed to be studying or working on an assignment. Remember, I teach high school students. Parents have told me, “I don’t understand why Susan didn’t finish her paper. She was up until midnight.” Susan may very well have been up until midnight, but she also may have been Snapchatting with friends or adding to her Instagram story instead of writing her paper.

6. If your student is struggling, consider a tutor. In addition to hiring adult tutors, investigate peer tutors. Peer tutoring is a wonderful option because besides the affordability factor (peer tutoring is usually free), students are often more comfortable around their peers, and they relate to each other better. It can also be helpful for your child to see for himself that other children their age understand the content. Many schools offer peer tutoring through Beta Club or National Honor Society. Check with the school counseling office to learn more about peer tutoring options.

7. Demonstrate a positive attitude about education. As much as you might want to relate to your child, these are not the years to share stories with your child about the times you skipped school, cut class, or barely passed sophomore English with a D-minus. Reveal those details after your child graduates from high school.

A new school year is the ideal time to adjust habits and routines that will point children down a path toward educational success. Our job as parents is to provide our children with supplies, space, time, and fuel to complete their assignments. Then, we need to step back and watch the child do the work. Perhaps parenting is one of the few things that can be accurately compared to rocket science. We have given them equipment and snacks, and now the countdown to liftoff has begun. The rest is up to them. It’s time for us to head to the viewing area and watch the launch.

Balancing Life With a Teaching Workload

my desk.jpg

by Melissa Face

It’s not unusual for me to trudge out to my car in the afternoon with several bags of papers that need to be graded. I have watched with envy, however, as many other teachers left the building empty-handed, and thought, “What am I doing wrong?”

I know I’m not the most efficient person in the world, but I imagined myself having a more manageable schedule and workload at this point in my career. I regret that I am often unable to indulge in an evening sitcom, read a new book, or go out to dinner.

I regret even more so that I frequently shush my own children when they approach me with something important or ask me to read them a story. “Mommy’s grading essays,” I say. “Come back in a few minutes.” I feel guilty for ignoring my children when I need to grade or plan. I have not achieved what many refer to as a work-life balance, and I have wondered if this concept is even possible in teaching.

On the drive home from a writing conference recently, I explained to a coworker that I sometimes feel I am not doing enough for my students, despite my overwhelming workload. I worry they may not be prepared for the next grade level or for college, but what more can I do when I already spend many of my evenings grading and planning?

“I think you’re being too hard on yourself,” my coworker Patty, said. “Teaching is a job, like any other job. Yes, it’s important, but so is having a personal life.” We then discussed how teachers are often portrayed in movies and that the expectation from society is that we ARE supposed to sacrifice personal relationships and families in order to do all we can for our students. Completely selfless is the way teachers are envisioned, but that should not be our reality.

I admit that I am struggling with my workload and family life, and I doubt that I am alone. So, I spoke with some veteran teachers to gain advice about efficiency and leading a more balanced life. Here is their advice:


  1. “Try to get grading done before leaving school so you have quality time at home. I tried to get graded work returned to students in two days. If I didn’t, I couldn’t move on to the next thing.”

-Loretta, Retired English Teacher (33 years of experience)


  1. “Pick and choose the things you will grade. I wish I hadn’t graded so many assignments. I’ve had 40 assignments in a quarter before, and it’s way too much. Also, find a place to hide to get a few things done. I usually come in early to get uninterrupted work time.”

-Kristie, Current English and Journalism Teacher (8 years of experience)


  1. “When lesson planning, write down all materials needed for projects. Prepare in advance all cutting, paperwork, games, books, and related themed teaching aids. It is difficult to wing it when things start falling apart. Preparation worked for me. If I spent one day working after school, it set me free for the daily trials and unknowns that inevitably happen.”

-Linda, Retired Early Childhood Teacher (39 years of experience)


  1. “Work out a strategy for grading small and large scale assignments so they don’t all happen at the same time. To be efficient, I have to use every crevice of the day. This means extreme time management, not getting bogged down by trivial things, and keeping a good calendar and sticking to it. If I have a 10-minute stretch, I tackle a small task and leave more time consuming tasks for my planning period. I try not to plan heavy graded work before holidays and other breaks so that my time with family is not fragmented.”


-Sigita, Current English Teacher (16 years of experience)


  1. “Work/life balance is a real thing, but it takes conscious effort and is not easy.  Clear planning and clear expectations are key.  As a teacher and a parent, you do not have to be perfect.  Teaching is ultimately about relationships and students need to know that while they are a priority in your teaching day, you have a life outside of being “their teacher”.  While I was learning these lessons as a teacher, my then five-year old precocious son said something to me that stopped me in my tracks. He said, ‘Mom, sometimes I feel that your students get the best part of you, and I am jealous.’ WHOA….that is when my life as a teacher totally changed. I had to re-examine what I was doing in the classroom, how that impacted my family, and then make those changes that made me more effective in the classroom and, more importantly, more effective as a mother.”

-Lisa, Retired English, Theatre, and Speech Teacher (33 years of experience)


Perhaps schools should address managing teacher workload as part of new teacher training or even through ongoing staff development. Sharing strategies and experiences is so helpful, and it may reduce teacher burnout and keep quality teachers from moving out of the classroom and into positions that have far less take-home work.

After reading these snippets of advice, I found myself wishing I had posed these questions to experienced teachers years ago. I know I can learn to work more efficiently. I’m grateful that one of the benefits of teaching is that each year we get a clean slate, a chance to do things better, or at least differently.







Why I Went Camping

Camping Pic

by Melissa Face


“Why do you want to go camping?” my friend Dawn asked.

I thought about the question.

I don’t love camping. I really don’t even like it. My family didn’t camp as a form of vacationing when I was a child; we stayed in hotels like civilized people. Camping is really not something I long to do.

“I don’t want to go camping,” I told her. “But I also really don’t want to miss it.”

Because my husband knows me well and realizes I can get a little grumpy in certain situations, he was wary when I asked to tag along on his family’s annual trip to the Red Wing Roots Music Festival in Mount Solon, VA.

He feigned excitement as the date approached. I have to give him credit: he really appeared happy to have me there. But he and I both knew this trip wasn’t about me. It was about our two kids and giving them the opportunity to spend time with their uncles and cousin. That is why I wanted to go.

When we arrived at the campsite, I had a beer (I like that part of camping) while my husband unpacked. Fortunately, his brother, Bryan, had set up our tent the day before, so Craig’s workload was pretty light.

I looked around at the tents, gas lanterns, cooking equipment, and water filters and I thought, “people spend a ton of money to live the way our ancestors did when they had no other choice.”

I kept my mood positive the first two days. I enjoyed the festival, the variety of food trucks, the beer garden, and family time. I loved staying up late by the campfire and getting as sleepy as possible in hopes that I would be somewhat unaware of the fact that I was sleeping on the ground.

It didn’t work.

I remembered I was on the ground each time I turned over that night. And I turned over many times.

It rained on day three, all day and all night. It was still drizzling at bedtime, and though it was technically dry inside our tent, the dampness permeated the fabric. I felt it everywhere.

It is possible that I was a little grumpy that evening. I may have even suggested going to the nearest hotel. My lousy mood heightened later that night when our car battery died. I wanted Craig to take us home right then in case it died again, wouldn’t recharge, and left us with no choice but to live at the campground for the rest of our lives.

I imagined being stuck at the campsite forever, where I had to walk down a steep, dirt path each time I needed to use the restroom and where I had to go to bed each night on the hard, damp ground.

Day three was miserable. It tested my patience and my ability to remain in a calm, pleasant mood. Others in our group weren’t as bothered by the weather as I was. They are better campers than I am, or perhaps just better people.

So why did I go?

Why did I subject myself to a buggy bathroom, a damp tent, and no air conditioning in the middle of summer?

I did it because of the things I did not want to miss. My life has taught me to not miss the good things, if I can help it.

I didn’t want to miss my son, Evan, holding a flashlight under his chin, trying so hard to tell a spooky story by the campfire, while the rest of us tried not to giggle.

I didn’t want to miss the excitement on Evan’s face when his Uncle Scott took him to the front of the stage because the Steel Wheels were playing Evan’s favorite song.

I didn’t want to miss my sassy daughter, Delaney, telling Uncle Scott he needed to “trim his beard” or watching her laugh until she got the hiccups from pouring water on herself and everyone else during the first hour of the festival.

I didn’t want to miss Evan eating grilled cheese sandwiches from the food truck three days in a row and saying it was the best thing he had ever tasted. I’m not a cook, so I wasn’t the least bit offended by his comment.

I didn’t want to miss witnessing the joy both of my children found in playing with Bryan’s dog, putting twigs on the fire, and gathering rocks…just because.

I didn’t want to miss the ice cream, kettle corn, pizza, s’mores, and doughnuts the size of small tires.

And I really didn’t want to miss dancing with my daughter to “Angel from Montgomery”, holding her close, twirling her around, and relishing in her littlehood.

The discomfort I endured was a small price to pay for what I would have missed if I had passed on this trip.

That is why I went camping. And why I will probably go again.



Trying to Forget August 8

amanda and me.jpg

by Melissa Face

The day I dread most is on its way.

It is the one day out of the year when it’s impossible for anyone to do the right thing for me. If people don’t acknowledge today as the day my sister died, I will feel slighted, even more than I already do. For most people, it’s just another August day spent swimming, back-to-school shopping, or vacationing. For me, this is the day a downpour and a minivan ruined my family.

This is the day nothing feels tolerable.

As annoyed as I am by people overlooking it, sometimes that is actually the better option.

Let’s say someone does acknowledge this anniversary by sending me a text or Facebook message. They tell me I’m in their thoughts, they know today is difficult, and they are here to talk to me if I need them. Their messages are heartfelt and well-intended.

But what they don’t realize is that this year, I was trying to forget today’s significance. And they just helped me remember.

There are so many things I still remember that I’ve been trying to forget.

I remember the phone call from my mom about a terrible accident. “It’s very bad,” she said. “She didn’t survive it.” I remember calling back and asking for my dad, hoping he would tell me something different, something better.

I remember the rain and how it poured my entire drive from South Carolina to Virginia. I remember that rain was one of the last things she saw before she was taken from us.

I remember the line of people twisting out the doors and around the church at her visitation. I remember smiling and shaking hands with some people I hadn’t seen in years, people I really didn’t need to see and probably wouldn’t have seen again – if my sister hadn’t died.

I remember tomato pie on my parents’ counter, more food than their deep freeze could hold, and not being able to eat a single bite of any of it.

I remember smoking cigarettes, one after another, until my throat burned. I remember half attempts at hiding them, yet not really caring if anyone knew I was a smoker.

I remember picking out a gray suit to wear to her funeral because I didn’t own anything appropriate for the occasion. I hated my funeral suit, and I threw it in the trash a few months following her service.

I also threw away sympathy cards people sent me that were filled with ridiculous and uplifting poetic messages. Hallmark writers don’t know how it feels to lose a 19-year-old sister. No one has accurately captured those emotions on a greeting card.

I remember the look on my dad’s face before I returned to South Carolina. “You’re leaving us, too,” his expression conveyed. “When will we see you again? WILL we see you again?” He hugged me and watched me back out the driveway.

I have no idea what the following days and months were like for my parents. They didn’t have the luxury of leaving town like I did. They were left to face the constant reminders of her room, her clothes, her friends, and the maintenance of her gravestone.

They had to answer the phone when an old boyfriend called to see how her summer was going. He had been away in the military, so he didn’t know. They had to tell him she was dead.

They had to deal with insurance, legal matters, and the disposal of the car in which she died.

I had the privilege of leaving it all behind. I was in a position to try to forget.

But I still remember.

I regret the times I have denied my sister’s existence, even though it stings when others don’t acknowledge her life or her death. Being asked if you have any siblings is a common introductory question, and I don’t have a pleasant, honest response. It’s easier to say that I don’t. The person I’m speaking to doesn’t have to feel awkward or apologetic. And I don’t have to open up a wound that is partially healed.

If I’m being completely honest, some days it doesn’t seem like any healing has taken place. Today is one of those days.

It’s a day I’m trying to forget, and I can’t help but remember.





We Love You, Miss Hannigan!

Melissa and the Annie Wig

by Melissa Face

Published in Prairie Times – July 2018


I recently woke up from a dream in which I was starring as Miss Hannigan in a local production of the musical Annie. I messaged my friend, Dawn, that morning and told her jokingly that it must be a subconscious hint for a new venture and that maybe I should give acting a try.

A few minutes later, Dawn responded, “I just got in my car to go to lunch, turned on my radio, and Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life” was playing. No lie.”

“It’s totally a sign!” I wrote back.

“Right? What else could it mean!?”

I don’t have a background in musical theatre. I’m neither an actress nor a singer, unless you count the kitchen productions I’ve starred in to entertain my children while they eat breakfast. But if those do count, I’ve played Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Roxie from Chicago, Sandy from Grease, and of course, all of the characters from my favorite musical of all time, Annie.

Even though my current audience is comprised of only two members, I don’t hold back. I give them a full show, complete with choreography, props, and all the enthusiasm and stage presence a tired mom can muster. And they’re worth it. They applaud and cheer; I’ve even had a few standing ovations.

My son, Evan, is most complimentary. “Mom, you are a really great performer,” he says. “You need to be in a for real show.”

This kid is the sweetest. And I like to think that he has great taste, but he also tells me I look beautiful in my bath robe. Still, with so many critics in the world, every aspiring actress can use someone like Evan to keep her spirits soaring.

My obsession with Annie is one that stems from childhood. I can recall watching the movie for the first time in complete awe. I was terrified of Punjab, Daddy Warbucks, and Miss Hannigan. Annie, on the other hand, quickly became my idol.

I dressed as Annie for Halloween one year, complete with a blue cardigan, heart locket and a horrible orange wig that I received as a birthday gift. I still have the locket; the wig had to go. I also had an Annie purse, nightgown, lunch box and a few other accessories. I was the ultimate fan.

While it would have been amazing to have played Annie in my younger years, that dream is one that I can no longer entertain. But what about Miss Hannigan? That could still be a possibility.

I can see myself lounging around the house in a silk robe and costume jewelry. Relaxing in the bath tub? You betcha.  Shouting orders at children? I already do that every day! I am the ideal Miss Hannigan!

I do love the idea of starring in a production, but the reality of it is terrifying. I haven’t been onstage since I was a junior in high school. And I’ve certainly never sung onstage.  I would probably forget my lines, sing off-key and eventually pass out from sheer embarrassment.

I’m much more comfortable performing in my own home, with my own small, yet appreciative audience. I crave the applause of tiny hands and the cheers of little voices who simply adore their mother’s version of “Little Girls” and how I change the lyrics to fit the most recent annoying thing my kids have done.

They love my singing and silly accents…for now. The day they stop clapping for me will be the day I seriously entertain the idea of a larger venue and a new audience. I may have no choice but to audition for the role of my favorite female villain. But first, I have to make these kids clean my floors… until they shine “like the top of the Chrysler Building!”



“Great Job” And Other Things We Should Stop Telling Kids

Evan and Laney at Scott Park


Published in Richmond Family Magazine

by Melissa Face


My daughter took dance lessons for the first time last year. At three years old, Delaney adjusted well to the routine of class, her new ballet slippers, and interacting with her classmates. She especially adored her dance instructor, Ms. Tara.

After months of driving her to dance class, purchasing her costume, posing for pictures, and preparing for show week, I couldn’t wait to see my daughter perform in her first dance recital. But at dress rehearsal, when the stage lights and music came on, Delaney stood on the stage, rubbed her eyes, and cried for the entire performance.

Sure, I was disappointed. But I also felt really bad for her. She knew her routine perfectly, but she had become paralyzed by stage fright.

In an effort to console her, another parent told Delaney that she had still done a great job. Delaney knew that wasn’t true, though. She looked up at me, teary-eyed, and said, “I didn’t do a great job. I didn’t do my dance.” Then she cried some more.

On the ride home that evening, Delaney and I talked about how scary new experiences can be and how fortunate she was to have two more opportunities to dance the following weekend.

Delaney seemed satisfied with our conversation, and I was inspired to do a better job of building my children’s self-esteem by providing praise that is honest, specific, and appropriate. In other words, why tell a child she did a great job if it’s simply not true? She will see through it, and those words will become meaningless.

Effects of Empty Praise

Chelsi Simmons, a licensed professional counselor in Colonial Heights and mother of three, has encountered similar scenarios in both her personal and professional life. Not too long ago, she was at the playground watching her son, Brantley, race another child. The other child’s parent told Brantley he was “fast as lightning,” and the fastest runner she had ever seen.

Simmons dismissed the comment initially, but in the weeks that followed, she noticed that Brantley was becoming frustrated when playing with other friends. He wasn’t as fast as he thought he should be, as fast as he had been told he was by the well-meaning parent on the playground. His abilities weren’t measuring up to the message he was sent.

“I knew I had to talk with him at that point,” Simmons said. “I told him he was not the fastest runner, but that he could keep practicing, and he could become faster.” He seemed okay with that message.

Simmons works regularly with children and their families on issues of self-esteem and says that it is important for parents to encourage their children’s special skills and focus on improvements. “We should be constantly encouraging our children to become better at whatever it is they are doing and ensuring that they enjoy what they are doing, compared to providing empty praise,” says Simmons.

We’ve all used empty praise. It includes statements like “great job” and “you are fantastic.” This type of praise is often delivered without sincerity, and over time, loses its effectiveness. It can also lead to disappointment and self-esteem issues, and even cause a child to question his skills.

“If a child is constantly told ‘great job,’ and is eventually corrected by other people or natural circumstances, the child may begin questioning his ability in that specific area and that self-doubt can spill over into other categories,” says Simmons. For example, if a child thought he was great at spelling because his parents said so, then is eliminated in the first round of the spelling bee, he may question not only whether or not he is a good speller, but also if he is any good at school in general. “This type of negative self-talk is detrimental in younger children who are starting to find themselves and build their own self-esteem,” says Simmons.

Erika Hahn, a mother and elementary school counselor in Prince George County, is also very conscientious about the messages she sends to her daughter. “As a parent, I am inclined to offer some type of positive affirmation to my daughter when she has done well. I want to encourage her and build her self-confidence. On the other side of that, I also try to give honest feedback. If she hasn’t done something to the best of her ability, I don’t want her to think she has,” Hahn says.

While both women agree that praise should be individualized, they also agree that empty praise is still better for a child in the long run than no praise at all. Hahn has noted the damaging effects of lack of praise in her work as a school counselor.

“I have encountered far too many students who have never gotten the ‘great job’ they are so desperately looking for from a parent,” says Hahn, who notes that this can cause a magnitude of ripple effects for children emotionally: never feeling good enough; not having positive self-esteem; and crying out for attention in the least desirable ways because any attention is better than none at all. “There is definitely a balance that is needed,” adds Hahn.

While children do desire praise, they can also recognize when it’s genuine and when it’s not.

“Your child knows if he is not the first person to cross the finish line or score all of the goals,” says Simmons. “And if we, as parents, tell our children that they did a great job, when in fact, they could have tried harder or played better, then we minimize their internal motivation to improve next time.”

It seems like common sense, really. Why would we provide a child with a blanket Great job! statement when the child truly did not perform well? Perhaps because it’s one of the easiest statements we can offer as parents.

“The lives of parents are extremely busy and filled with work, activities for the kids, and household responsibilities. ‘Great job,’ unfortunately, has become as commonplace as the phrase ‘How are you?’ when you greet someone,” Simmons says. “You do genuinely care, but at times, we are so busy that it is easy to send a simple praise compared to an individualized praise.”

Instead of offering empty praise, experts recommend commenting on your child’s special skills, encouraging children to become better, and focusing on improvement.

“We need to provide genuine, person-centered, strength-based praise, and enable our children to have discussions on areas of weakness and strive to improve those areas,” Simmons says. “It is more important that our children are the best they can be on the inside, compared to placing that emphasis on external factors.”

Chelsi Simmons

Erika Hahn agrees and believes that specific, meaningful praise is critical to the development of a child’s self-esteem.

“If we encourage kids to do the best they can in a situation, then they can learn to intrinsically encourage themselves. They will know when they’ve tried their best and they will be proud of themselves. Kids need to learn that their validation can’t come from other people; they have to find it in themselves,” says Hahn.˘

Ask the Right Questions

So what should a parent say when a child asks for feedback when he has obviously not done a great job? This was my reality last fall when my son, Evan, played an entire soccer game without getting near the ball. It was early in the season, he was new to the sport, and he just seemed afraid. As other children ran aggressively toward the ball, Evan backed away and adjusted his shin guards. Then, after the game, he asked me how he did.

In response, I asked him how he thought he had performed. “How do you think you did?”

“Well, I was pretty nervous,” Evan admitted. “And the ball seemed like it might hurt if it came toward me fast,” he added.

We then turned the conversation toward specific things he did well and specific things he could improve on the next time. We discussed the fact that he ran quickly and was able to keep up with his teammates, even though they were older. We also made a plan to practice more aggressively at home, so he could see that the ball wouldn’t hurt too much and he didn’t need to be afraid of it. It was a productive, meaningful conversation, and one that wouldn’t have happened if I had answered, “You did great!” to his question.

Sandy Correll

Simmons says turning the question back to the child is a wonderful strategy. “Being able to self-critique is a valuable skill,” she says. “I recommend asking the child how he thinks he did, along with asking whether or not he had fun.”

Fun! Can you imagine that? We are talking about children, after all. But because we live in such a competitive and driven society, we often forget about the importance of doing things just for fun. As a result, our children do, too. We don’t have to be great at activities in order to enjoy them. What’s wrong with doing something just because you like it? Isn’t that the point of a hobby?

Most adults are not great. Most of us are average. We are average runners, golfers, and swimmers. We have reached a point in our lives where we know we can’t all be great at everything, but we can develop and improve our skills. If we communicate this to our children, we will run a much lower risk of setting them up for a dissatisfied life.

What’s in a Mindset?

Sandy Correll, a certified school psychologist from Prince George, reminded me about Carol Dweck’s research on mindset. More than thirty years ago, Dweck, a psychologist and professor at Stanford University, coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset. Dweck’s research suggests that whether people are aware of it or not, most of us have certain mindsets about ourselves as good teachers, bad parents, lousy athletes, etc. Additionally, individuals with fixed mindsets often believe that talent and intelligence are fixed traits and they tend to shy away from activities that challenge them. Individuals with a growth mindset, however, believe their skills and abilities can be developed through hard work. But perhaps the most important aspect of her research is the conclusion that it is possible to change a person’s mindset from fixed to growth, and when we do, the result is increased motivation and achievement.

“Understanding that our brains stretch and grow, and that we develop parts of ourselves when we tackle difficult tasks and embrace challenges is central to the growth mindset approach. This approach also recognizes that making mistakes is just a consequence of working hard and trying new things, and it creates opportunities for learning,” says Correll.

In order to steer children toward developing a growth mindset, it is important for praise to be specific. It is also important for it to be attached to the process and not to the child.

For example, instead of saying, “Great job!” we can tell a child that it is obvious he practiced a lot. Instead of “You’re a good girl,” we can say, “I appreciate that you took out the trash without being asked.” Instead of, “You are really smart,” we can say, “You have been working hard in math, and you have improved.”

When a child challenges himself and still doesn’t perform well, Correll suggests complimenting the effort and working with the child to figure out what he doesn’t understand. “You could also tell the child that everyone learns in a different way, and you will keep trying to find the way that works best for him,” Correll says.

Parenting children toward a growth mindset is invaluable for everyone involved. The ultimate goal is to raise a child who exhibits confidence, accepts criticism, and fails without giving up. And the best way for us to do that is to walk the walk, alongside our children. We can effectively influence a growth mindset in others when we are also cultivating one in ourselves.

As for my dancing daughter, she recently completed her second year of ballet and tap and performed in her recital without the least bit of stage fright. It was wonderful to see how proud she was of her own efforts and progress. It was even more delightful to see her having so much fun. I know that together we will experience many more moments of success and failure, and we will do our best to learn and grow from each of them.

Don’t Read the Comments


***Published on Life in 10 Minutes  – 5/28/18

By Melissa Face

“Our editorial staff has reviewed your article and approved it for publication!”

I was ecstatic to receive the congratulatory email from an editor of one of my favorite blogs. The site, written primarily for teachers, has more than one million followers, so my work would be extremely visible. I was thrilled to have that kind of exposure for the first time.

I told a few close friends about my article, then I shared it on my Facebook page. Later that night, I looked online and saw that it had a few hundred likes, 90 shares, and 15 comments. I read the first comment and the words sucker punched me through the screen.

“This article is absolutely worthless,” one woman wrote. “Who wrote this?! I doubt they are a public education teacher!”

I felt like an actor on Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets segment, minus the celebrity status and bank account, of course. Actually, I felt worthless. How could I not? I wrote the piece described as such.

I know now that reading the comments was my first mistake. “Never read your own reviews,” my friend Patty told me on our ride home from a writing conference earlier this month. “No matter how good your work is, there will always be someone with something negative to say.”

I heard her. I really did. I guess I have always been one to learn a lesson the hard way, though. And because of the nature of the piece, an article about teachers coping during tough times, I wasn’t anticipating negativity. That was my second mistake. From now on, I will always expect online criticism, and not the constructive variety.

In the first few hours after reading the harsh comments, I found it incredibly difficult to not respond to them.  I wanted to write, “Yes! I am a public school teacher! Didn’t you read my profile?” and “Wait! You must have misunderstood my point. What I meant was…”

But I didn’t do it. I didn’t respond to any of them or attempt to defend my work. I knew it would get me nowhere, and I would appear pathetic and desperate. Plus, I read an online article about responding to criticism that reminded writers that additional comments will only push the negative reviews toward the top. Let them fizzle. Allow them to die out. That was good advice.

The next morning, I bathed in self-pity. I stayed in my pajamas, drank copious amounts of coffee, and read junky online articles. My kids were home with the flu, so it was really the perfect opportunity to turn into a sloth. I allowed myself to feel completely low and untalented. I ate chocolate and pretzels, and decided that because I apparently suck at this whole writing thing, I would make a list of other things I wanted to do instead. I planned to start my list after a long nap.

I was so embarrassed at first that I didn’t want to tell my friends and co-workers what had happened. But because there is safety in numbers, and because I cannot keep things quiet for long, I shared my experience with them.

I texted Patty, who reminded me, once again, that I should never read the comments. “It’s always hard to hear,” she said. “But it’s the price we pay for putting our work out there.”

I spoke with my department chair, who echoed Patty’s advice. She also told me about Henry, a 13-year-old writer and activist from Richmond, VA, who received incredibly nasty criticism online earlier this year. Henry’s posts about equality and the ACLU were met with insults such as “pawn”, “autistic”, and “crazy liberal.” He was even compared to Hitler youth. So, if people will attack a child’s ideas online, they will attack anyone.

In the midst of my funk, I did not discount the possibility that my article could have been a lot better. It was too idealistic, too fluffy, and I vowed to write more authentically in the future. I would allow my first negative experience to motivate my future work and help me develop thicker skin.

I now consider myself to be in great company, among writers and other artists who aren’t afraid to continue putting their work out into the world, despite what others may say about it. For most of us, it isn’t even a choice. It’s just what we have to do.

Andy Warhol said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

Yesterday, I took out my list of things I want to do besides write. That page is still blank.