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Friday, June 12, 2009

Am I A Bad Parent?

I have two very talented and intelligent kids. They are always first in their class in school and are in the gifted program in their school district. My wife is fanatical about making them excel at all things intellectual. They read well above grade-level and there is never a problem getting them to read (though it is a little difficult to get them to read non-fiction books).

They are also far ahead of their class in mathematics and have grasped and understand math at 3 to 5 grade levels above their grade. My wife scours the internet for test papers for them to practice their math on and I have seen them do math tests administered to students 4 to 6 grade levels above their current grade as part of tests like the Pascal Test, Math Kangaroo, etc.

My wife is not as good at math as I am, and freely admits it. After all, I did the engineering degree, not her. So, she considers it my responsibility to keep the kids well-coached in math and get them to maintain their edge over their peers in school.

The problem is that I have never been interested in teaching people. I like doing my own thing and will solve problems for others when asked to, but teaching requires a different level of preparation to accomplish. This is particularly true of teaching young children because they are not familiar with concepts that I am familiar with, so I have to dumb down stuff and start from the very basics to get anywhere.

After lots of coaxing and more than a few ugly confrontations, I have resigned myself to imparting my math wisdom to my kids in small increments. I have sat with them over several days and weeks, and taught them unit conversions, graphing of linear equations, solving of simultaneous equations, areas and volumes of various shapes, etc., etc. I think I have relearnt a few things along the way and have made the material accessible to them by being patient and drilling them repeatedly on key concepts along the way.

The problem is that my kids are very smart, but very lazy and forgetful also. They consider math a chore just as I consider teaching it a chore. So, just a week after I teach them something and drill them on it, they will forget what I taught them. Or, they will look at a word problem and instead of taking the trouble to understand the language and convert the problem into a math problem, they will just give up and say they don't get it.

I am not very patient to begin with and I know it is a problem I have. When I teach math, I try to keep the impatience as far at bay as possible as I go over things with my kids repeatedly. But often, I just end up losing my patience and throwing my hands up in frustration when I feel that the kids are not making as much of an effort to learn as I am making to teach. And then proceed to take the frustration out on the kids by shouting at them for not getting what they should get. I tell them that I have no problem with them not getting something that they don't know and have never been taught. But I do want them to get what they have been taught and what I know they know. When they get lazy, or careless, I get very angry.

Very often, this ends with the kids in tears, running to their mom, and complaining about my behavior. And my wife initially used to shout at me, now she just gives me the silent treatment. After a while, I feel bad, the kids already feel bad, my wife feels bad, the whole family feels bad and it is all because I can't keep my expectations for performance from my kids in check.

My wife always pointedly tells me that all the dads she knows always take great delight in teaching their kids what they know and never shout at them or lose their patience with them. She considers them model dads and perhaps considers me a bad dad. She has not actually told me that I am a bad dad, and I think she knows that the dads she knows are not model dads 100% of the time. But still, what exactly should I do?

The trouble is that I shout at my kids only because I have such high expectations of them. I have told them many times that I can solve the math problems for them right in front of them, not shout at them at all and that would probably leave us all feeling happy, but it does not solve the underlying problem at all. I feel that the kids are motivated to understand and retain what I have taught them only when there are consequences for their not doing so (the consequence, in this case, is being shouted at by me). If I repeatedly let them off the hook for doing the same thing over and over, will they ever learn anything?

The problem is, I don't know. I am familiar with attracting ants with a drop of honey instead of a liter of vinegar and so on and so forth, but in the heat of the moment, when I am doing math with my kids, all that simply vanishes and is replaced by the sense that my kids are not doing well only because they don't want to take the whole thing seriously.

How will my kids remember me when they are all grown up? Will they understand all the conflicts and emotions that go through my mind when I let my frustrations boil over and I shout at them? Or will they think I was a selfish person who refused to share my knowledge with them in a way that was helpful to them? If they don't do well in math going forward or they decide not to pursue a career that requires math, will it be because of me or in spite of me? Am I a bad parent or a good one that does not know how to channel my abilities to the advantage of my kids? Am I normal, about the same as what goes on in other families or am I deluding myself into thinking I am, while I condemn my kids to an aversion to learning because of my outbursts? I don't think a day goes by when I don't think about these questions over and over again. And I still have no answers.

In some ways, I remind myself sharply of my karate sensei. He is a good practitioner, but not a good teacher. He frequently drives new students from his class because of pretty much what I do to my kids. Except, my kids can't yet run away from my class. I have discussed my sensei's lack of teaching skills with other regulars at the karate class after classes by email, etc., but I have never told them that I am exactly the same at home. He does it with strangers, and I do it with my children. Does my sensei do it because he cares as much about the strangers as I do about my kids? Or do I do it because I care only as much about my kids as my sensei does about some strangers in his class?

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