Some days are great. Others are hard. More than two months into stay-at-home orders, parents and kids are getting used to the concept of learning from home via video chats and Google Classroom homework assignments.
But there is definitely a void, and the thought of having our children at home over the summer creates anxiety all around.
Our ancient brains crave dopamine, and short-term activities and experiences like video games and social media provide it. But in the long term, these experiences need to be countered with slower types of thinking, planning, and purpose-driven action.
Here are six steps that may help you and your child find a fulfilling pursuit together.
1. Ask your child, “What do you think?” I am always amazed at what even very young children tell me when I ask for their thoughts on important problems they see adults grappling with. You have nothing to lose by asking for your child’s thoughts on important issues. You will be surprised at the depth of her understanding and the freshness of her ideas.
2. Explore family values, not interests. We often ask children what they are interested in, but conversation often stays in the realm of gender-based, stereotypical interests like sports, dance, or art. It is human nature to like something we are good at, but it may close the door on new learning adventures. Instead, approach the conversation to find intersections between what your family values, how you may want to help others, and your child’s interests (here are additional resources on problem identification).
3. Focus on helping others. Focusing outside one’s self is a very powerful activity. It broadens your field of view, makes you think about the other person’s needs, and consequently gives you a break from thinking about your own stress. Building on the previous step, ask how your child could help someone in the family, neighborhood, or community.
4. Find an easy-to-start project with room for creativity and no limits. My 7-year-old daughter likes languages and writing. We were inspired by “Making Cents – Every Kid’s Guide to Money” to create a free weekly newspaper for children to help all those who were struggling with and adjusting to learning from home. This project is now in its ninth week and we have learned so much. It was a challenge at first to coordinate, but very quickly we settled into a rhythm. The children conduct research and find facts on topics they care about and coordinate each week’s content on a google document. Your project can be simple or complex–as long as there is room to keep growing and learning.
5. Plan “dopamine hits” for your child. Everything can become tedious over time when chipping away at a single project. Perhaps predictably, several children abandoned my daughter’s newspaper project after the initial novelty wore off. However, feel-good “dopamine hits” can come to the rescue via rewards, novelty and social interactions. The newspaper gang meets everyday via video. Early in the week they plan out the content, and then they spend the rest of the week playing games. They have a sense of purpose because when they run out of games to play, they can always discuss newspaper content.
At first, small but meaningful rewards that are relevant to the project can be helpful to jump start the engine. Then, once the project comes to life, you can help your child recognize the sense of accomplishment at creating something new. After a few weeks I sensed that the gang needed a boost, so I set up a simple Google website for the newspaper. I also learned how to set up Google analytics for the site so that the novelty of website traffic would motivate the children. Now they can see that people are visiting their site from around the world.
6. Use the project to learn something for yourself, too. Have you always wanted to learn how to paint? Build a mobile app or website? Write? You can do it with your child! Double up the impact of your effort and time while genuinely showing your child that you are willing to go outside your comfort zone and explore. You may feel momentary panic and helplessness, but take a deep breath and one tiny step. You will find it’s not so scary. It is OK to say to your child, “I don’t know, yet. Let’s go find out together.”
Purpose-driven learning isn’t always smooth sailing, but it is fulfilling. It will bring you and your child closer together – as learners and fellow adventurers – and it will be something that your child can look back on with much pride.
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