Many children go through a hating-school phase. When this happens to your kid, let him hate it.
Let him loathe it. Let him be sad, frustrated, annoyed. Whatever it is, let him feel it.
Nothing takes a situation from bad to worse like trying to be talked out of your feelings. This is what happens when caring individuals want to make it all better.
Recall the stereotypical, but familiar, example of a woman who simply wants to share her feelings — and then get frustrated when her husband wants to “fix” her sad feelings and solve the problem. This can happen with parents who are desperate for their children to love school.
But instead of trying to remedy the situation, parents, put on your detective hats and learn more.
Encourage your children to share their true feelings about school. Make sure they know you get how they feel. Tell them stories about your own worst teachers, smelly cafeterias and playground injuries. This is not the time to take an expert “I know best” attitude. This is the time to listen, to really hear them — and to commiserate, almost as a friend would.
True, parents are often told not be their youngster’s friend. But this advice is directed at parents who have a difficult time seeing their kid get upset with them. When you need to suss out a situation, as in the school-hating one, a buddy approach can do just the trick.
Once you both have thoroughly trashed all the things that are awful about school, the conversation may naturally go to what is good about school. If the conversation naturally doesn’t go down that path, nudge it along. Maybe you know your child has a soft spot for history class, so bring that up: “How’s ancient Egypt doing?” Even if you know, it’s good to ask.
Better yet, plant the seed for your kid to defend something. A comment like, “I heard the art teacher is awful,” can lead to a defense of an amazing art teacher. This sort of tactic can feel a bit manipulative, but it’s not. You are simply leading your kids down the road of sharing feelings and then starting to focus on positives after they’ve had time to air grievances.
As you start to chat about the positive aspect of the day, know that "school" is a broad category. Think of the many parts of the day, from waking up on time to dismissal to the after-school hours. Learn what your child likes and doesn’t like so that you can address those specific components rather than the whole package. It is unlikely your child hates every aspect of school, but it is easy to get caught up in the all-too-common "my kid hates school" narrative.
One way to relate to your child's situation is to tell him school is his work, just like mom or dad’s job. Share what you dislike about your job and what keeps you doing it everyday. This might require a little thought as we often focus more on the frustrations of our careers than what we actually enjoy.
Be aware of how things are going socially for your child. Even from a young age, social interactions are a very big deal. If your child feels he doesn’t fit in or is being bullied, it could have a huge impact on his perspective. You may need to address socialization specifically, rather than academics.
A Closer Look
However, if a deep dislike of school seems to be setting in with your child month after month — and even grade after grade — it's time to take a closer look at the whole situation. Is your kid learning? Struggling in academics will lead to a lot of frustration and embarrassment. It doesn’t take kids long to withdraw mentally and decide they hate school as a way of coping with the sense of inadequacy that comes from falling behind. Keep communication open with teachers and stay on top of academic problems.
Room for Improvement?
School, while a huge chunk of a child’s life, isn’t the only thing. Look at the entire day. Is there room for improvement in any aspect? If so, whatever it is that he dislikes about school could become less of a focus. Perhaps a favorite teacher can check in with him now and again. Maybe he can eat lunch in a smaller group, away from the noisy cafeteria. Consider the after-school routine. Is there a fun activity that can be a reward for getting through the day or week?
Not every child will be gung-ho for school. I sure wasn’t. I have wonderful memories of particular classes, but the whole of school? Oh, no. As an introvert with no aptitude for math, most days were a challenge one way or another. But thanks to a reading addiction and a handful of excellent teachers, my overall learning and happiness was never seriously impaired.
If your child loves everything about school, count yourself lucky and celebrate this often. If not, stay mindful of all the different aspects of his life to ensure that underneath it all, he is learning and thriving.
Jill Kaufmann, LMFT, is a family therapist in Bend, Oregon.
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