When a child resists lessons

A mother asked me to help her with her “rebellious son” who refused to do his math. He was twelve at the time, bright, and full of rambunctious fun. The parent and child had reached a serious impasse. He would sit at his work with his arms folded on his chest or manage to find a reason to go outdoors. Mother was growing worried and depressed; her son was growing angry and sullen. She wanted me to tell her how to make (force) her child to comply.

When a mother or father comes to me for advice about a child who “won’t learn” or “refuses to do his work,” I know they have missed one of the first principles of learning. You see, children want to learn and they want to please. This is axiomatic. If you can accept this truth the rest becomes easy.

Why then do children become resistant? Usually because there is an unmet need. The problem is not how to apply discipline effectively; it is to understand the real needs of your children. Their real needs are things like unconditional love, respect for their person, a nurturing environment that supports growth, learning that stretches and engages their minds and hearts. When a parent is able to meet the real needs, very often a child will become compliant, joyful, happy and content most of the time.

If you have a child who is resistant, take a step back and ask yourself what is going on at the moment. Look at the whole picture: the physical space, the emotional atmosphere and the events happening around him. Ask yourself what real need does your child have that is not being met?

If you don’t have insight at the moment, pray, then ask your child. Here is a very important point. When you ask your child why he or she doesn’t want to do the work you must ask with soft eyes and a gentle smile—not hard, challenging eyes. That is, if you hope to find out what your child needs.

The mother with the “rebellious” son did as I suggested and asked her son gently with soft eyes why he wouldn’t do his math. His reply startled and humbled her. “Because I don’t understand it,” he said glumly. She breathed a sigh of relief. “This we can fix,” she thought. She asked Dad to tutor him and made sure the lessons were only twenty minutes in length so her son could maintain his attention (another CM principle).

What happened next surprised this mom. The boy became more loving and willing to get his math done as well as his other work. Their relationship became better than ever. Why? What happened here? What can we learn from such a happy outcome? It is this: her son had a real need for help in understanding the work given. He felt the expectation that he should know and this frustrated him.
When you behave towards your child as the person he is and in the way Charlotte Mason describes in her Twenty Principles, you will see a change.

The answer is not power over the child, which only makes matters worse. The answer lies in understanding what the child needs at that moment. When a parent sees their child as having real, legitimate needs that are their responsibility as parents to provide, then a more compassionate form of parenting can happen. The cure is often easy to find when the matter is looked at in this way.

What about discipline? Discipline should be your last resort not your first. By discipline we mean applying natural consequences for actions, never spanking or harsh words. In a soon-coming article I will talk about a child’s need for authority and what it actually is…hint, it’s not what you think.

P.S. If the problem is dawdling—taking too long to get the work done—read my article on dawdling