January 31, 2024
By Dr Kathy Weston
So, there I was, last weekend, on the floor of the gym, complaining that everything was sore, moaning that I had endured enough and begging not to have to do more stomach crunches. My instructor, however, had other ideas. He looked irritated and used every trick in the motivational book to keep me going, talking into my ear, praising my effort, and reminding me of how I would feel at the end of the session once I had accomplished it.
Throughout our session, he was spouting phrases like, “You told me your goal was to exercise daily, so I am merely supporting your goal”. “You need to do this, you know you need to do this”. “You need to push through. You’ve got this!” Occasionally, he would put his hand to his mouth as he attempted to manage his own frustration at his reluctant pupil, dragging her back from the precipice of procrastination.
The instructor, reader, was my eldest son, aged seventeen, who is normally the main recipient of my motivational pleas. Roles had been reversed and the impact on my son was clear. My husband was in a state of disbelief at how this switching of positions had suddenly ignited my son’s energy and appetite to hit the gym. He was also amazed at the various resilience mottoes and mantras our teen was sharing with me; they clearly must have come from somewhere!
As I held on to the dumbbells and puffed (read moaned a lot), he seemed all grown up suddenly, authoritative and capable. Who knew? I was relying on him to stay positive and to nudge me. I could hear my own parenting approach seep through his efforts and, as the session ebbed by, I was able to unearth exciting insights; his views on exercise, intrinsic motivation and on what he was studying in school. He started telling me the names of muscles I didn’t think I had, nor particularly cared about. He asked me how much water I drank and reminded me that older people (like me apparently) really need to focus on flexibility.
Although I didn’t experience the much-heralded euphoric post-exercise high, I felt quietly pleased that the session hadn’t just kickstarted my 2024 goal to ‘move more’, but had also both retrieved and consolidated his recent biology test knowledge: a win-win.
When roles are reversed and children turn into teachers, they are given permission to access a different repertoire of knowledge and to think more flexibly. The relationship between parent and child has a certain predictable tone to it and, if we aren’t careful, we can end up in a relationship rut. By switching things around, we can refresh the dynamic and model a sort of humility that inadvertently boosts their agency.
Interestingly, this works across all different types of learning. We have all sat at the dinner table, on occasion, and tried to get our children to focus, to understand something, or to concentrate harder. It can be tough trying to ‘teach’ when we aren’t teachers and tough to watch their faces crumble when we get frustrated or look irritated. Unfortunately, in millions of homes around the world, homework time coincides with fatigue and hunger, for both parents and children. Not a great recipe for happy, motivating chats.
It is often optimal to have a snack or dinner before getting stuck into schoolwork and, even then, consider, if you can, how to switch things up a bit. Take spelling tests. I still remember the sighs when I would suggest that my two got their ‘spelling lists’ out and that we needed to do them. After time, I learned that there were multiple ways to approach the spelling test without anyone getting bored. One of the most effective was asking them to test me. Their smiles were testament to the joy of putting mum under pressure! I would model thinking about the word, wondering about how it sounded and what that meant for how it was spelt. Occasionally, I would say things like, “Oh, I LOVE this word!” or, “Oooh, this is a really tricky one, let me see”. I knew that my children would also remember the context in which we were talking about the words, the conversations that we were having about meaning, and perhaps even how we chuckled about mummy getting something wrong.
Every time they corrected me, they learned. Every time they told me off for not remembering, they repeated how the word worked and told me what I had got wrong. In other words, they were learning and barely even realising it! Imagine how much easier it was for them to tackle the list after those games.
Spelling tests are often weekly tasks that are ‘due after the weekend’, so there is some time pressure to get them all done and dusted. But, it is possible to take another approach. We can bring words out and about with us and into the everyday. Words can be drawn with bath crayons, spelt out with Scrabble tiles, or even recorded on audio messages to play in the car.
Spelling lists also give us an opportunity to explore connections between words. Perhaps children can think about something that rhymes with words on their list, or learn something about their etymology. We might even… wait for it… introduce a dictionary into family life, rather than relying on things like digital devices, Siri or Google to help provide definitions. This kind of approach can be applied to the whole curriculum, across all subjects, and be adapted for children of all ages.
When my teen approached his GCSE exams, I did the same thing as I did when he was little. I asked him to teach me, harnessing the “protégé effect”. I tried to ask great questions to ignite his thinking. What can you tell me about radioactivity in physics? Teach me something about moles in chemistry. Please, please tell me more about that book you are reading. Even as recently as a month ago, I asked him to read my book club book out loud to me while I rested on the sofa. I enjoyed every second of it and he enjoyed commenting on how awful the book was. It was fun to do and gave us something to chuckle about. I know he also liked (again) being the one doing the talking, reading, teaching, the one who turned the page.
An action to try at home? Think of an academic task that your child isn’t particularly fond of doing and consider how you can embark on some role reversal! For wider household jobs, you can also try to lean in and seek their advice or help. Get your phone out and ask them to show you how to set up an account, or how to use a particular app. Listen out for, not just to their ideas and insights, but also the impact such engagement might have on their self-esteem and confidence levels.
How else can we empower our children? How else can we boost their confidence and self-esteem. The answer is: in more ways than you can imagine. So much of what I described above relies upon a reasonably positive relationship between parent and child, so how can we develop a rich connection in the first place?
One of the greatest investments that we can make as parents is in the relationship or connection with our children. I once spent time with the attachment researcher Dr Andrea Oskis, who told me that if we spend quality time with our children (of all ages), they absorb the message, “I am worth spending time with”. Within that secure attachment, knowing they are loved and valued, they are given the confidence to be themselves, develop resilience and have confidence to springboard into the world.
Interestingly, as I am fond of saying in my talks, it is so counterintuitive as loving parents, but by stepping back sometimes, we give our children the best chance to thrive too. Take the early years. I recall Cambridge Professor of Psychology, Claire Hughes, who explores how parents play with children, commenting that it is optimal “to sit back and only intervene when they struggle”. This is known as ‘autonomy support’. I also remember the words of Professor Siobhan O’Neill, Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University and ‘Mental Health Champion’ of Northern Ireland, who warned that ‘overprotective parenting’ can lead to worse mental health in adulthood.
By giving our children time and space to problem-solve, we help develop their thinking. By giving them space to make errors in their learning, we give them a chance to thrive. By gently coaching them through friendship difficulties, rather than solving everything for them, we invest in their ability to cope with the inevitable relationship knocks that will come in adulthood. By allowing them to participate in family life (with chores, cooking, budgeting, laundry), we equip them with some of the basic skills required to live as independent adults. Again, the latter example shows how role reversal can support their skill development! Something to think about.
It is hard to comprehend that our children will one day live elsewhere and need to fend for themselves, with us supporting and loving them from a distance. Will they be able to cultivate social connection, self-soothe in times of difficulty, reframe the challenges, pick themselves up after a disappointment or believe in their own ability to cope? Will they be able to make sensible decisions? And have confidence in their own decisions and judgement? By bearing the end-game in mind, it gives us confidence to parent in a way that truly enables and empowers.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Within Tooled Up, we have numerous resources which can help to cultivate children's independence and build self-esteem. Our articles listing 10 self-esteem building tips for parents to ponder and five things that can help to build children's independence are good starting points. You might also like to try out our activity, What Makes You, You?, which can help children and young people to recognise the traits and achievements that make them great, and promote positive self-reflection. We've also put together some ideas for self-esteem boosting tasks and chores that children and teens can do around the home.
If you're interested in learning more about fostering a strong sense of connection with your child, we'd love to see you at one (or more) of our lunchtime webinars with Dr Gauri Seth in March.
On 11th March, we'll learn about how the early care-giving environment can set the tone for lifelong self-esteem and relational wellbeing. If you have a younger child, join us for a fascinating discussion about what parents of babies, tots and toddlers need to do to maximise a child's ability to thrive.
If you're parenting a teen, join us on March 12th, as we explore the brain's significant architectural development during adolescence, and how knowledge is absolutely key to ensuring an empathic, curious and compassionate parenting approach.