Homeschooling the frequently discouraged child

My son Ethan is nearly 10yo.  Admirably, he wants excellence in most areas of his life, school included.  He — like his mother — is not satisfied until a skill is mastered.  Although we don’t have to record letter grades or percentages, Ethan knows that I consider everything a 93% and higher to be an “A,” and will frequently bring a calculator to me so I can figure out his “grade,” especially when he sees that he hasn’t missed many.  He gets *very* discouraged when he sees a lot of red marks (or whatever shade of colored pencil I’ve grabbed to grade a paper) on work he’s done, and I have to work overtime to keep his spirits up.

For instance, a couple of days ago, he had an assignment diagramming sentences.  For the first time, he was to add adjectives to his diagrams.  He’s long been familiar with adjectives, but new to him was the idea that articles are technically adjectives, as are posessive pronouns.  In his work, he just left out most of them, which I corrected.  He watched as I marked up his sheet, and by the end of it, was in tears.  It took several minutes of pep talk to let him know that, though his paper was full of red marks, all that he needed to remember was to diagram a, an and the and words like my, his, and hers as he would a “regular” adjective.  I knew he was up to the task, and that it was not the end of the world, but it took a while to convince him of that.  I was not upset at him at all, and let him know that.  He put forth good effort, but just forgot a few bits.  He said, weepily, “I’m just so disappointed in myself!”  Some encouraging words, some pats on the back and we could then move on.   

Sometimes, though… I just can’t justify being encouraging to him in the face of disappointment.

In general, Ethan would highly prefer to put forth the least effort on everything, yet reap the rewards of a thorough job.  A particular sticking point is in him simply following instructions.  He frequently scans an assignment, makes his own assessment of what is required of him, and follows those self-made directions.  Often, I will go over the instructions with him in advance, and I can see in his body language that he’s not listening;  he’s already decided how he’s going to attack the assignment.  This frequently leads to him doing more than required, less than required, or something altogether different from what the directions have told him.  That doesn’t work for me, and almost always, I have him go back and do the work again, this time according to the instructions.  We are very nearly done with our fifth year of homeschooling, and we still go ’round and ’round on this topic nearly daily, and certainly weekly.  Learning to read and follow instructions are, in my perspective, a pretty basic and important skill.

Case in point:  Yesterday, he needed to do an oral book report, which he has never done.  He has done written book reports, and while they’re not his favorite thing to do (no written assignment is), he can do an admirable job.  I showed him, in his English book, where the lesson was that he needed to read, told him that there were fairly simple, almost step-by-step instructions of what to do. 

I checked in with him later that afternoon, reminding him of the instructions in the book.  He showed me his index card of notes, and though they were very short, he assured me that they were simply reminders of what he already knew by heart, and that his oral report would be thorough. 

After dinner, he rose to give his report to the five of us.  He stumbled, fumbled, fidgeted, and gave a thoroughly inadequate “report” consisting of about three disjointed sentences, and then waited expectantly for the applause.  I did join in, but today… 

Well, we cracked open the book to the assignment he was to read, went over each step that he should have done.  He admitted that he had only skimmed the instructions, and, feeling like he had the gist of it, went by memory so that he could get done as quickly as possible.  I told him that he’d actually only done about 10% of the assignment.  Tears flowed.  I enquired as to the reason he was crying (I couldn’t tell if he was disappointed in himself, mad at me, upset because he would have to do his work over, or what.)  Weepily, he cried,  “You’re discouraging me!”

This time, no back pats, no bolstering of his spirits.  I told him that I would be a bad teacher if he only did a small fraction of his assignment, yet I responded, “You’re doing great!!”  I compared his work on the book report to the sentence-diagramming one.  “Was I upset that you got quite a few wrong on that assignment?”


“That’s because you put forth good effort to do the work well;  you just forgot a few parts.  This time, I am upset, because you – by your own admission – purposefully did not follow the instructions to try to make the assignment easier for you.  Yet you want me to encourage you in that??  I won’t!  I can’t do it!”

Now, I did assure him that I know he could give a really good report if he follows the instructions, includes the requisite parts, practices in front of a mirror and/or with a sib (or me!) in advance, etc.  He’s in his bedroom now, working on a new report.

It’s a fine line, sometimes:  I want to be an encouragement to him, especially when I know the only thing that’s between him and success is his own fear of failure;  I love to help him overcome that.  However, there are times when he has done inadequately, and instead of gentle words and a backrub, he needs a swift kick to the tailfeathers.     


About Karen Joy

I'm a partially-homeschooling mother of six -- 3 boys ages 19, 17 and 15 years old, and three girls: 11, 8, and 3. I like birding, reading, writing, organic gardening, singing, playing guitar, hiking, the outdoors, and books. I very casually lead a very large group of homeschooling families in the Phoenix area. I have a dear hubby who designs homes for a local home builder and who is the worship pastor of our church. I live in the desert, which I used to hate, but now appreciate.

Posted on June 12, 2007, in Encouragement, Homeschooling, Parenting, The Kids. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Your son sounds a lot like me as a kid – and you’re absolutely right. There’s the times where perfectionism is getting in the way, and there’s the times that the tears and so forth are really more of a manipulation, or a “habit” if you don’t think kids are manipulative. It sounds like you’ve got the hang of the difference and how to respond to each.

  2. My son sounds a lot like *me* as a kid, too! One of the reasons this is so important to me is that no one helped me sort out when/if my frustrations were justified, and if there was anything I could do to rectify the situation. My frustrations were a continual brick wall that, even now, I have to talk myself through. I want to educate my son better on this character issue, or personality tendency, or whatever you want to call it, and give him some problem-solving skills, instead of seeing him dissolve into inaction, as he is wont to do.

    We both (my son and I) have the same odd mix of both defeatism and stubbornness — though he tends more to the defeat side, and me to the stubborn side.

    You bring up a good point, Sara — where does his reaction come from? Is it manipulation? Is it habit? Is it immobilizing perfectionism? Maybe a bit of each.

  3. Great post! I see tendencies in my kids that are similar to these. Neither of them like it when the red pen is whipped out and begins marking on their paper. They are both, in some ways, perfectionists when it comes to their work – my daughter more than my son though I think. Some of the things you said your son does reminds me of my son. I’m constantly (well, maybe just occasionally?) having to underline the directions (with that red pen again!) and giving an assignment back to my son because he didn’t do the assignment like it said to. Almost always it’s in Language too. He doesn’t like that subject and tires of diagramming sentences. 🙂 I’m hoping that one of these days he’ll realize it will be much easier if he’ll just read the directions and do it right the first time. 🙂

    Sounds like you’re doing a great job with your son!!

  4. “He frequently scans an assignment, makes his own assessment of what is required of him, and follows those self-made directions.”

    Oh wow, my son has this problem too. It’s really the only thing that bugs me enough to get perturbed with him. And he knows it. But it continues. I hope not for long.

  5. One of my kids does the self made directions also.

    What’s the point of diagramming sentences? Is there one? I can remember spending 6-8 weeks on that in 8th grade. It was awful! I don’t think the point was ever explained. I’d almost rather learn a totally foreign math concept (I strongly dislike math) and work on that for 6-8 weeks.

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