The last couple weekends around home have been math weekends. Not by choice, not by design, not for fun. My daughter brings home a fair amount of math homework from middle school. She’s actually pretty good at it but she doesn’t realize this, because (her words) she thinks her friends are all better than she is at doing it. To be fair, the work is hard. There are some math brains in her class, but she can hold her own … when she sits down and focuses. Aye, there’s the rub. The real reason it takes so long is that she spends so much time actively NOT doing the homework. Getting around to it is very time-consuming. A problem set that she could do in 45 minutes takes more than two hours. The math “project” that she did over the past weekend took a good part of two days. She’s got the best of intentions: math book open in front of her, sharpened pencil at the ready, but she’s poking at her nails. She’s examining the buttons on her shirt. Daydreaming. Pushing a crumb on the desk around with her pencil. This ultimately leaves not much time in the day to do fun stuff. How can we reclaim this lost time for bike riding, book reading, or even more pleasant daydreaming without the pressure of an impending problem set?
OK, I admit, it’s not just her. I do this myself, all the time. Avoidance of the difficult. It’s painful. Knowing that a task will require difficult mental energy can make it so hard to jump in. Until I get wrapped up in the task, I find myself very regularly checking email, or experience a sudden imperative to clean up the desktop on my computer, or balance my checkbook, or even … clean the bathroom. Now that spring is almost here, I want to encourage faster habits for getting things started and finished, for both of us. We both have the stamina to spend too much free time diddling over a task. This thought provoking IHE blog about perfectionism thwarting progress resonated with me and also has me thinking about this issue from this perspective. My daughter has strong perfectionist leanings. So do I, and I suspect at some level she knows this and that my perfectionist habit probably leaks over to hinder her performance. Poor kid.
Yesterday I sat next to my daughter as she did her homework. I worked on my computer and looked up regularly to encourage her along on each problem. We worked towards goals with tangible treats – even one jellybean per math problem makes a good motivator. This helped. I know she’d like the feeling of independently getting things done, but sometimes it just helps to know that someone’s there rootin’ for you. By the end of a problem set, although often tired of it, she’s usually positive – she likes the accomplishment and generally enjoys the problems once she gets into them. I often feel the exact same way. So I ask you, readers: how do you avoid avoidance? Hoq so you leap the hurdle of an unpleasantly difficult-to-start task? And how do you help your kids with this problem?