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It's never easy

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

Nothing is ever easy. It feels true in life, although in truth many things are easy, of course. You don’t notice those ones. But when it comes to your kid’s schoolwork, never describe anything as easy. Even if it’s something they’ve done ten times before and should be able to do in their sleep, don’t call it easy.

Calling something easy gives a triple-whammy of problems: if your child can answer the question then suddenly it has lost all value: of course they can do it, it’s easy. It’s even worse if they can’t do it: then they must be really stupid because they can’t answer that question even though it is easy. And before they answer there’s the anxiety of facing that possibility – they’d better get this one right or appear stupid. That will alter their approach to the problem, encouraging them to look for quick answers, rather than looking deeply for a solution.

With one little word – ‘easy’ – you’ve destroyed the value of your kids’ achievement. This one is a simple fix: almost never use that word. If there’s a problem that they should be able to solve then the phrase I use is, “that’s hard, but you should be able to do it”. There is still the risks disappointment if they then fail to solve something they ‘should’ be able to do, so even that one use sparingly. But at least there you have the fallback that you described it as ‘hard’, so there’s no humiliation in getting it wrong.

There are limits. Kids can see lies, and if you say everything is hard, then it might lose value. If they have a question on the one times table, if their spelling test includes the word “I”, then you can say that that isn’t too hard. Even then there is the possibility of a mistake: you have to know how the one times table works; it’s only a single fact you have to know, but until you’ve learnt that you won’t get it right. And the word “I” has to be capitalised for some reason, so there’s often knowledge they need. Since they won’t discuss the difficulty of everything, so you’re safe to almost always say that a task is difficult.

One significant exception is when your child is getting frustrated with a question (see Frustration). In that case, don’t agree with them how hard the problem is! Don’t comment on the difficulty at all, just calm them down and focus on parts of the question they can do.

Sometimes they’ll declare a task to be easy. It’s good to see that confidence, but it has all the same psychological issues if they say it as if you do. To fix that subtly correct them (see Fixing mistakes, Praise the effort)

D: Finished. That was easy.

Me: That was difficult, but you worked really hard at it.

And conversely, saying a task is difficult has the opposite effect: there’s now great value in succeeding and little cost to failing. The motivations are positive rather than negative. For an added twist you can pretend you want them to get it wrong (see You don’t know that) or you can pretend to get it wrong yourself (see Getting it Wrong.) Both of those give an extra motivational kick to help your child on their way.

Every so often, I would try to run different lessons for my two kids, something harder for my boy who’s two years older. It never worked, my daughter always wanted a piece of the action, to try her hand at the more challenging work. Accidentally, I’d provided great motivation.

But the important thing here is not to fall into the demotivational trap of calling anything easy. That’s a simple way to help your kid’s motivation. It’s easy.

See also

Getting it wrong

No, they're not 'good at maths'

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