I have one child who takes after me in this respect. Do music practice every day because you are supposed to? Check. Do extra credit for elementary school classes? Check. Pick the hardest of three options for the 4th grade math project? Check. Do the PA reading challenge and read every book on the K – 3 and the 3 – 6 grade lists because you’re in 3rd grade? Check, and must be first in the school to finish. This past year, this child participated in the National History Day Competition because, in the child’s words, “It was clear from the teachers’ presentation about it that it’s what the smart kids do.” The same kid, in kindergarten, was in a study where they had to push a button to earn some kind of food reward. The kid wouldn’t stop pushing the button and finally had to be cut off due to time constraints [oh look, I found the published paper].
The other child, while also smart and creative and motivated in many ways (parent requirement to add this disclaimer here), doesn’t have the same inclination. This child often chose not to do extra credit – for this child, homework involves more breaks to read and stare off into space, so who has time for extra credit? This child only read the books on the PA reading challenge that were in the fantasy category – the child only wanted to read books of interest to the child. Music practice happens, sometimes, with prodding/reminders.
It’s my parenting inclination to try to push this child to do every extra thing. No you can’t play Wii if you haven’t done the extra credit assignment (“But Mama, I did all my homework…”). Why wouldn’t you try the National History Day Competition? “Because it just didn’t sound like fun to me and my friend.”
And so one day, in fourth grade, I noticed in this child’s homework planner something about bringing in a bean dish for extra credit. The child never raised it again. I asked about it a couple of times, and the child didn’t bite. Finally, I said okay, I’d let it drop. But somehow I couldn’t, so the morning of the sharing beans activity in school (honestly, it was a couple of years ago and I can’t remember the actual lesson plan), I ended up, without prompting, roasting chickpeas before school (an easy recipe that didn’t require a trip to the store). The child was grateful I had done it, but also would have been completely fine if I had not.
It’s taken me some time as a parent to recognize that sometimes it’s not my job as a parent to push my children to do things they are not motivated to do, or more specifically, to push my nature on my child. Yes, I should make sure that my child finishes homework – but perhaps extra credit homework should rely on intrinsic motivation and not parental nagging. Honestly, this particular child sometimes doesn’t finish all of the regular homework, and sometimes, that’s okay too.
I find it easy to parent the child who is similar to me, at least around issues of school and achievement. It’s more trying to parent the other child because the choices made aren’t always the ones I would make. It’s easy to want to push that child to make the choices I would make. But I’ve definitely worked on not pushing daily music practice if that’s going to make the child miserable or want to quit playing an instrument, or to let the child decide about extra credit work without my forcing the issue.
I think parenting this specific child has provided helpful life lessons to me. First, as an advisor -- I don’t always have to push each student to do every possible thing if the student isn’t motivated to do so, but instead, should support the student’s decisions, within reason. And also, for myself, I’ve learned a bit more that I don’t have to say yes to everything just because it’s one more thing I COULD do or because everyone else is doing it. I try to say no to more things at times, so that I am saying yes to the things that are important to me or that I’m passionate about, and so I can do the things that I say yes to better.
I think this lesson is important for graduate students as well. There are certain things that graduate students HAVE to do – there are required course and graduate milestones, there’s your dissertation. But beyond that, you don’t have to say yes to things just because someone thinks you should. Instead, you should be strategic about what you want to do. Let’s say you are being pushed to teach a class, because most students do so during their graduate career. If your career goal is to become a faculty member, then it may make sense to do so. But if your career goal has nothing to do with teaching, perhaps teaching isn’t the best use of your time. You do not have to go to every conference that your advisor goes to just because that’s what’s done. The list goes on… think about what is important for your career, and what is valuable to you, and focus on those decisions.
Yesterday I bumped into a former colleague who had been invited to be an associate editor. She said that her current colleagues were all telling her that it’s a great opportunity and it is great for her CV, and that she should do it. It seemed pretty obvious in talking to her that she wasn’t motivated to do it –that it wasn’t a task that interests her. I think the message she was receiving was that it would be helpful for going up for full professor. Yes, it’s important to get service to the profession in order to get promoted to full professor. But there are many pathways to get there, and being an associate editor is only one. For some people, editing tasks are really unpleasant, and I wouldn’t recommend someone take on that role unless they are excited about it. Which is what I told her. Don’t just say yes to something because you might be good at it – pick the things that you WANT to do.
I still have to fight the Straight A Student tendencies in myself, frequently. Sometimes it helps to have someone remind you that doing everything you COULD do isn’t always the best path for your goals.
“Why I roasted chickpeas at 7:30 AM first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on August 2, 2018.”