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2 Lessons I learned about mothering, when my son wouldn’t learn his math


Colleen Duggan - published on 08/11/16

I can't be all things to my children, after all

My sister, Sarah, and I were chatting on the phone as I watched my children swim laps during practice. As we talked about the kids, I confessed to her that my oldest, Patrick, needed to repeat his current math class.

“He just didn’t do well this year,” I said. “So many aspects of school come easily to him, but with math, Patrick doesn’t have the skill set to persevere and work out difficult problems.”

Sarah was silent as she digested this information, but not for long. “What do you mean you’re going to have him repeat math, Colleen? Patrick is a good student. Did you get him a tutor? Are you making him take summer school? This is unacceptable,” Sarah said.

My sister and her husband, Ted, are second parents to my six children. They both take great joy in my children’s accomplishments and are equally devastated when they see that one of my kids is struggling. Sarah took this news about Patrick’s poor math performance harder than I expected.

“You’ve got to put him on a learning schedule over the summer. He can’t get behind in math. It’s too important. I know you need help, so don’t worry, I’ll handle this problem. I’m going to put him on a math schedule and he’s going to work every day. If he does a good job, I’ll fly him to visit us at the end of the summer.”

That night, Sarah registered Patrick for Kahn Academy, sent Patrick an email outlining what he needed to cover in math, and promised him an all expense paid trip to her home if he completed his course load.

Patrick was so thrilled by the prospect, he agreed to the deal immediately. I, on the other hand, was skeptical Sarah’s plan would work.

I was dead wrong.

Every morning since summer began, Patrick sets a timer and spends over an hour banging out math problems. Patrick, my child who has been known to throw a book or rip papers to shreds when he doesn’t know how to complete problems, has not uttered one single complaint about the work. Though math is his nemesis, he’s devoted his summer to doing the Hard Thing.

Let me be clear, my husband and I couldn’t have motivated Patrick to work on math over the summer if we paid him. In fact, our efforts to teach Patrick math have almost always been ineffective.

But for his aunt and his uncle? Patrick is motivated to work hard.

This entire experience has taught me two lessons about parenting that I won’t forget. The first is this: it is impossible for me to be all things to my children. While I may desire my children to develop a certain skill set or talent, all my prodding can’t “make” something happen, and my nagging (or sage advice) will go unheeded.

However, if the right people step in to encourage my kids, there is a good chance they will listen. A prompt from someone my children respect will often motivate them to do something I’ve been asking them to do all along.

The second lesson: it really does “take a village” to raise a child. I find myself frequently overwhelmed from managing the moral, emotional, psychological, and academic lives of all six of my children, and if I’m being honest, I didn’t have the energy to oversee Patrick’s math curriculum this summer, even though I knew it was important. My sister recognized I needed help and she stepped up with an assist.

It’s comforting to know that when my husband and I hit a wall, we have people who will roll up their sleeves and get to work.

God must know I need all the backup I can get.

Thank God for the Sarahs and Teds in the world, and thank you, Sarah and Ted. I owe you a favor and Patrick owes you a math lesson. He’ll have it to you in the morning.

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