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Sometimes It’s Mom That Needs to Learn a Lesson

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My son is smart. He’s so smart that he was climbing out of his crib several months before he turned two, could somersault out of the porta-crib at 14 months, learned how to stack up stuffed animals to reach the light switch by 22 months, and knew how to remove safety doorknob covers at 2 1/2.

Suffice it to say, he kept us on our toes.

We would often joke that he is super-smart when it comes to being devious, but when it comes to academics, he’s just not that interested. And I have to make a confession that pains me: I would often think that he was choosing to be lazy when it came to school work.

Here are some of the descriptions we’ve heard from daycare staff, camp counselors, or school personnel:

“Connor is very smart and knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s doing something he shouldn’t be.”

“Connor is very capable, but only if it’s a preferred activity.”

“Connor can be lazy, and doesn’t want to put in the effort if it doesn’t involved playing and having fun.”

After a while, some of that seeps into your subconscious. And getting through first grade this year, I started to wonder if maybe there wasn’t some truth to him being “lazy” when it came to reading or doing spelling and math worksheets.

This weekend, I was trying to get Connor to read one of the new early reader books I’d bought him. He refused, and wanted to keep going back to the same book he’d read twenty times already. I told him they were both Level 2, and it wouldn’t be a harder book.

Finally I asked, “Why? Why don’t you want to read a book that is the same level as the other one?”

His response? “Because I don’t want to get any words wrong.”

I’m not Attila the Hun when it comes to reading. I help him to sound out words he doesn’t readily know, and I cheer him on as he reads, saying “good job!” or “Nice reading!”

But for him, it’s the anxiety that accompanies not knowing something. The simple act of not knowing bothers him to such a degree, that he doesn’t want to venture into any new territory.

I was struck by a terrible sadness for thinking it was sheer “laziness” that kept him from reading new books, when all along the issue was anxiety-related.

Now I need to fix this. I need to find a way to motivate him and alleviate the anxiety of learning. We’ve talked at length about how getting things wrong is part of the process of learning. And it’s okay. Everyone gets things wrong sometimes.

Still, it’s going to be a long road. I wonder, what do you do when your child’s anxiety prevents them from moving forward in school??


About Flannery

Kid, husband, dogs, my mother, full-time job, maximum stress, minimal relaxation...sooner or later I had to vent. AND we moved from California to Texas. I could start a whole other blog about that.

32 responses »

  1. When my son was very young he and I lived with my mother for extra support for a year or so. We had to install bolts at the top of every door so that we could lock him *out* of rooms so he didn’t rearrange the entire house! Going into the kitchen to make a simple cup of tea meant that you would return to moved furniture, emptied cupboards and drawers and a generally trashed living room!

  2. “Connor can be lazy, and doesn’t want to put in the effort if it doesn’t involved playing and having fun.” OMG …you have just described a boy! Work through it by bribing him! A.K.A. ABA therapy. When you finish reading this book …you get blah, blah, blah. At school they need to put in positive reinforcements -rewards for doing things he is afraid of doing.

    • I can’t agree with bribery 100%. For some children it works well, but if the child learns to associate the reward with the goal in the wrong way, it starts a cycle of refusal to do something unless a reward is attached. For one nephew, it turned into stealing because he felt that he deserved something that he didn’t have. It works better if you use an more intangible type of reward such as a bike ride at the park or a game of catch. I have a child who avoided risk and we actually had to put risk-taking as a goal in his IEP. He was not competitive at all but loved math and loved to help other kids. So his reward was usually to be allowed to help other kids with their math problems. We hurdled the reading issue by having me read to him. I would start and then ‘get stuck’ on a word or sentence and he would ‘help’ me. Next thing you know he didn’t like ‘how slow’ I read, so he would take over. Loved it…

      • We do a mixture of tangible (toy) rewards, and intangible things like trips to the skating rink or McDonald’s skeezy playscape (his choice), so we’re good there. Still, his anxiety is holding him back. I might have to try that reading thing and going slow and pausing. Wish me luck!

    • We’re doing a lot of reinforcers, but he just doesn’t want to budge on a new book. I might have to change the parameters of the reinforcement.

      And he is ALL boy, for sure!

  3. My son is much the same way with not wanting to be wrong, which means unwilling to take risks. As far as not knowing words, it reminds me of a scene from “Say Anything” (John Cusack, mid 80s…) He has a super smart girlfriend and one day he picks up her dictionary to thumb through it. It is all marked up. He asks about it and she tells him that every time she looks up a word she underlines it. It turns out that TONS of words are underlined.

    Anyway, maybe if you get a dictionary and start marking your words, pointing out to him that even mom doesn’t know everything and has to find stuff out, he might find comfort in that. If he is competitive, at some point, maybe you can mark yours in one color and his in another. Have a ‘contest’ to see who is the most motivated to learn new words, or who is the most curious, etc.

    My son is now 18 and still asks me about words he doesn’t know. I often don’t know, and before I finish getting the words “I don’t…” he will be on the floor with the dictionary.

    • First, I LOVE Cusack. Second, that’s a great idea. I think it’s time to get one of those simple dictionaries for the younger kiddos. Off to Amazon!

  4. Oh the ever present perfectionism and anxiety it causes over mistakes. We’re still fighting it in our oldest child. I wish I had a magic answer, but I just have a “we’re there too.”

    • I have anxiety too, so it doesn’t help the whole situation. I get anxious about him not moving forward, and he gets anxious about moving forward into new territory. It’s a standoff.

  5. I think our kids were separated at birth. My kid will only read the Bob books series, because he knows he can. Amanda said it: perfectionism, anxiety and routine all rolled up into one. We’re there too as well.

  6. Wow, I see so much of my son in yours. And Alysia’s…and…and… Thanks for the new perspective on my own son. Wish I had a magic answer for us both!

  7. My son is an adult (age 22) and still riddled with this kind of anxiety. As a recovered perfectionist myself, I understand it. We use two phrases in our family: “There’s no such thing as failure, there’s just more data.” and “This is what learning looks like.” I even have a bracelet with that last one on it, just to remind me not to judge myself or others when in the learning phase . . . and we are ALWAYS in a learning phase!

  8. I see the same thing in Toots when we do homework. Usually, it is math when I see visible signs of discomfort with subtraction. And I have to admit I’ve been less than stellar in the understanding department but until you wrote this, I really didn’t think about how I must contribute to the anxiety rather than helping him get past it. You have shared some very valuable insight here.

    I guess, for me, I will keep trying to make things fun with games & positive reinforcement and convey that same understanding that learning is a process and everyone makes mistakes because none of us are perfect.

    • If I had a nickel for every time I added to my kid’s anxiety…trust me, I’d be doing well. It’s so hard to keep these things in mind, when it SEEMS like they’re just being lazy. This parenting thing is hard!

  9. So true! You know, I’m a nut for the social stories. They work so well for us. But I only think to use them in new situations. I never think to use them for things like acquiring a new skill. Please buy Connor some ice cream for me today.

  10. It’s as if you were a fly on the wall in my house. Same situation here. I’d love to learn some new motivators to help my son. Every time I sit him down with a book, he tells me he cant read because he is stupid. It’s like a knife through the heart.

    • Believe me, I know how you feel. Connor has said that too, that he’s stupid and his brain tells him to do stupid things. Just kills me, every time. That’s too much burden for a child to carry.

  11. My older daughter suffers the same anxiety. Especially when it comes to math. In first grade we ended up with a tutor. But in 2nd her teacher volunteered to meet with her twice a week before school to help her without the other children knowing. Her teacher made the same comment as you, Allie is not lazy she just wants to be perfect.

    For Connor, maybe you can get a list of some of the books they will be reading in class. Then he can prep for it to help with the anxiety.

    • I’m not sure how we’re going to tackle this. He seems excessively anxious about how many pages the book has, how many words on each page, and getting words wrong. This might be a long road.

  12. That’s a hard one. Maybe it would help to put words up around the house that are at his reading level, and walk around throughout the day and say them, then have him repeat them? Make a game out of it.

    • Hahaha, Tammy. You have not met Connor. He would immediately know that I was up to some kind of covert operation, and would promptly go around behind my back, removing the signs and hiding them. He’s devious, remember?

      • I have found that because making mistakes is part of learning, rewarding the mistakes is as important as rewarding the success, otherwise you aren’t rewarding learning. For example, for each sentence he gets wrong, you could get one wrong as part of a fun ritual where repeating the same thing over and over offers novelty. He has trouble reading that the lady put the cake in the oven? Then correct the mistake and dramatically “oh uh mom’s turn to read it wrong!” And read word by word except that you replace cake with “poop log”

  13. My neurotypical son has a lot of anxiety about reading, too. It is hard for me to accept because I have always found enjoyment from reading and want my children to share that with me. I can’t think of anything to add to the already very helpful comments posted above. I love the suggestion about letting our children know that everyone makes mistakes and that it is okay. Perfection is not something we should be trying to achieve. Just doing our best is what is most important.

    • I have the exact same problem! As a kid, I happily sat inside reading, instead of playing. I LOVE to read, and had hoped to instill that in my child. But alas, he is his own person, and that person is NOT an avid reader.

  14. Karla (Mom2MissK)

    The first part of this post sounds a lot like Little Miss… The “laziness,” the refusal to do the work… I have definitely had those conversations with her teacher. She’s not quite as sophisticated in her communication as Connor seems to be and I don’t honestly know if it’s anxiety over getting it right – but after reading this post, you can bet I’m going to be keeping a more careful eye on it. Thank you!

  15. Katie is very similar. I was convinced she was reading at two, but she wouldn’t readily show us she could until Kindergarten. Now, as she’s getting ready to enter third grade, I know she is an amazing reader, but I struggle getting her to read the longer books that require any time spent on her part. I’m not sure it’s a laziness thing. I think it might actually be that in her school, when you complete a book, you have the option to take tests on them for points. I think she is afraid she will get something wrong, so she simply chooses not to read so she won’t have to take the tests.


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