For the past 14 years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with children from K to12 in a variety of subjects, but primarily in English, Language Arts and Humanities. I’ve been both a classroom teacher and a tutor lending academic support to children in the regular school system and those who are homeschooled. To that end, I’d like to broach a topic I know will be sensitive to many parents - falling into the trap of being your child’s secretary. Unsure what I’m talking about?
Allow me to explain. On a regular basis, students arrive to work with me. Their work is completed, however, some or most of it is completed in a parent’s handwriting. Never assume that this ‘little’ detail escapes detection. It does not. In fact, even if I did not notice, parents and children alike have no problem telling me outright that the parent was the scribe.
There are so many reasons why parents do this and for the most part, the reasons are rational. Sometimes it’s because working with a reluctant writer is frustrating. Working with a slow writer is time-consuming. Working with a tired child is exhausting. Maybe his writing isn’t all that neat or his spelling and grammar aren’t that great. Maybe she can only write down a few words before she gets frustrated and wants to quit. It’s easy to justify that he has great ideas, but has trouble getting them down on paper. Rather than having to spend several hours and endure a meltdown, it’s easier to compromise and have you do the writing. There are boundless other reasons a parent chooses to take over the physical act of writing and, granted, it’s very tempting to offer to do the writing when you see your child struggling. Of course you want to help. That’s what you’re there for, right?
However, while it likely means that for this moment not all of their brilliant ideas will necessarily make it to paper if they’re doing the writing, it also doesn’t help them if you do it. Why? Believe it or not, there is a learning and thinking process that accompanies putting actual pen to paper. When you do the writing, your child is being denied this process. If it happens rarely, then it’s not a big deal and you can stop worrying. However, if you take stock of how much you actually write for them and it’s on a regular daily basis, it’s likely too much. Keep note over the next month and record how many times you have picked up the pencil in order to just get something accomplished. I guarantee that many of you will be surprised how often this happens.
Ease of writing is a process you want them to grasp now, not struggle to learn later when curriculum becomes more difficult and educational demands are higher. At that point, it’s taken for granted that this skill is already mastered; certainly no one expects that they’ll be struggling with the physical act of writing when the academic material is the intended challenge. What happens in higher learning when the ability to write dictated notes as someone dictates expected? How will your child manage in this situation? I know it seems like that day is far away. You think you’ll have lots of time to work on that skill later, but really, it’s closer than you think and writing is not a skill learned overnight. If you think about it, writing skills were being learned as soon as your child picked up their first crayon and began to draw or scribble. In early school years, writing is a huge focus as children are taught letters and numbers. By the time children reach upper elementary, those skills aren’t practiced anymore. Proficiency in that area is assumed to have been mastered.
Eventually, your child won’t have you beside them to assist - and that’s when the painful struggle begins. It may not seem like a big deal now, but when they reach late elementary or even junior/senior high level, are you still going to be willing, or able, to be their secretary? Trust me; you’re going to want to be more ‘hands-off’ by that age and you’ll also have higher expectations. But how can you do that if the quantity and quality of the writing aren’t up to standard? Can you really afford the time in later years to get the needed practice? Doubtful. It’s likely that you’ll continue to compensate for their weakness in this area, thus perpetuating the dependence.
Reliance such as this isn’t good for your child’s self-esteem either. There may be situations where they participate in an activity that requires writing to some degree and their self-esteem takes a blow when they realize that the other children’s abilities surpass their own. We want to think children don’t notice these things and for the most part, when they’re younger, they don’t. However, as children get older and more self-conscious (think puberty), they notice everything and compare themselves mercilessly. It’s a hard enough time in a child’s life without unnecessarily adding this to the list. I’ve had many a child sadly tell me how they know they’re not as “good” or “smart” as other children because they’ve recently been in a situation that highlighted this difficulty. Transition into any situation, whether it is a new Grade or teacher or any new experience where writing is expected, can be very difficult if writing is weak, especially when a child is aware of this weakness. With the challenge of a new situation or different educational environment, do you really need to worry about writing skills as well?
I appreciate that there are many parents reading this who identify with the situation. I’ve described, but also recognize that their child just isn’t ready to handle life without a personal scribe. Fear not. That being said, I’m not saying it’s going to be easy because it’s not. Your child is used to you doing a lot of the hard work so there are likely some struggles in your future. However, please understand that I’m not suggesting that you immediately begin a total hands-off program. That just isn’t the type of resolution that would work for anyone. Ideally, you don’t want your child to notice that you’re gradually becoming more hands off as expectations for them increase. As the adult in your child’s life, it’s up to you to balance these abilities with your child’s skills, while introducing increased writing on a continual basis.
Next time you start to do the writing, instead encourage your child to do it, regardless of how long it takes. Your job here is to be the cheerleader. Continue to track your progress in terms of how much more your child is doing their own writing. By keeping track on paper, it will be much easier to track how many times you have resisted the urge to do the writing. When you notice that the number of times you’ve done the writing is negligible, then congratulations, you’ve made progress!
If you find that the struggle is continuing and becoming too stressful for all involved, it may be time to get someone else involved. Talk to other parents and see what techniques they’re using. Maybe form a homework club among the parents on your block whereby students go to the house of a different parent each day and do their homework there. A child is less likely to expect someone else’s parent to help them the way that you do, especially if that other parent is already aware of your expectations for your child.
Ultimately, you want to do what’s best for your child. If, despite your best efforts, you still need to see your child writing more, then don’t be afraid to seek help from a teacher or tutor. After all, this is their forté and they’ve had experience with this kind of thing many times over. They definitely have more than a few tricks up their sleeves. Their approach and techniques will likely vary from your own and most children are much more willing to cooperate in this kind of situation than they might be with a parent.
I’m speaking to this subject because the more I work with children, the more I see the long-term and sometimes detrimental effects lack of writing practice can cause. Thus, I’m hoping parents will be encouraged to compel their child to write more, although I realize it can sometimes be a painstaking process as you wait for the initiative to take effect. I believe that every parent can help their child be a better writer. How you do it is up to you, but take the first step and let your child work his or her magic!
Roxanne, B.Ed., B.A., T.E.S.L., is the owner of Tutor Doctor, a tutoring company that “makes house calls” for all Grades and subjects. Roxanne facilitates and enriches the learning process by matching students with just the right tutors who then work one-on-one in the home to administer individualized lessons. For more information, visit tutordoctor.com/rrizzuto.aspx, email
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