A Therapist Explains How To Make Your Child A Better Learner

What can psychology teach you about being a more effective parent? Focus on outcomes over processes.

By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | October 8, 2022

Many people come to therapy asking questions about how they can be better parents. They may say things like:

  • "My child is falling behind. What can I do to help them?"
  • "How do I know if my parenting style is working?"
  • "My child is doing well, but how do I ensure I am giving him/her the best chance for success?"

Here, I'll discuss one common-sense learning technique that tends to get overshadowed by process-based strategies and a growing tendency toward 'over-teaching.'

The key to better results is as simple as focusing more on your child's outcomes and less on learning processes.

One of the most common parenting 'mistakes' occurs when parents (and teachers) focus too much on how a child thinks and not enough on whether the child is arriving at the correct solution. Let me give you a couple of examples.

  1. Does it matter how a child solves a multiplication problem, say 4x3? Or, does it matter more that they arrive at the right solution? Certainly, it's the latter. Why? There are many correct ways to arrive at the right answer (12). You could memorize your times tables. You could draw a picture. You could reduce it to an addition problem. If the child is getting the problem right, that's evidence that they are successfully applying one of these strategies. Whether or not they are solving it in the way that your brain prefers is beside the point. Their brain is not your brain.
  2. Or, here's a sports example. Let's say you are teaching your child how to play basketball and you want him/her to improve their free throw percentage. Is it more important for you to teach them the 'right' way to shoot a basketball? Or, is it more important for them to make 10 out of 10 free throws? Again, the answer is the latter. Sure, you could argue that good shooting form leads to made free throws, and that's true to an extent. But let's not forget that the underhanded free-throw artists of the mid-1900's were just as accurate as modern-day shooters. Just as there's more than one correct way to solve a math problem, there's more than one correct way to shoot a basketball. The right way for you may not be the right way for them.

What does this mean for you as a parent? It shows us that it is more important for you to give your child as many opportunities to practice in an environment where they are receiving feedback (e.g., whether they solved a math problem correctly, seeing a basketball go in or not, etc.) instead of focusing too intensely on the specific technique that goes into producing the result you would like to see. In other words, make them solve hundreds of multiplication problems and grade their results. Or, have them shoot hundreds of free throws while keeping track of their makes and misses.

The old adage 'practice makes perfect' is almost right. Psychologists would update this to say 'practicing with feedback (i.e., correct vs. incorrect) makes perfect.' And, let go of your tendency to always want to show them the 'right' way to do something.