On Learning, Challenging and Supporting our Children

by Mr. Hugh Burke


Imagine this: In just a few years, your child has graduated and gone to university. After a few weeks, you get a phone call, and your child tells you that this university is hard, so hard, with difficult assignments and a huge reading list… and that their roommate does not know how to clean up, and that it is really difficult to see a Professor…

I got that phone call just a few years ago. I remember when my daughter called after about three weeks of university. The courses were very challenging at McGill. The workload was horrendous. Her roommate had grown up doing nothing,  with her parents (and a maid) who did everything – laundry, cooking, cleaning. My daughter could not even get in to see her teachers, due to their large student load. Feeling a bit helpless, I asked her what she wanted me to do…

“Nothing, Daddy”, she said. Surprised, I asked her what she intended. Her reply surprised and touched me: “Do you remember grade five and six and seven? When it was so hard, and I sometimes even cried about the work? Well, this is just the same! I have to organize, and work harder. I can do it. I remember how”.

I do remember those grades. She had come to Meadowridge from French Immersion, and could not read or write in English. Her math was really behind. And so she had to work and work and work to catch up, to barely pass. Sometimes, she was in tears. At the time, she really seemed to be suffering. But that suffering is what some psychologists call “meaningful suffering”. That is, it is the suffering that comes from challenge and development. It is the hard lessons that prepare us for more challenges ahead. It is developing our ability to make mistakes, to keep on going, with determination and intelligence. It is ensuring that we have some grit.

We know from a lot of research that it is not talent or intelligence that leads to real success in life, although some of both may be a help. What really makes a difference is determination and practice. And more practice, and more practice. To be really good at something, it takes about ten thousand hours of practice. But just to be reasonably good at anything takes practice. And practice involves mistakes and learning and determination.

A huge part of schooling, then, is to have our children practice those things that they will need as they grow. They need to practice self-regulation, to be able to be responsible for their own assignments, their own clothing, their own materials. They need to experience developmentally appropriate challenge and failure, and practice the ways to overcome those things. They need to practice hard work, and responsibility for their actions. When parents or teachers do these things for them, they become – like my daughter’s roommate – helpless. Sometimes, parents do not realize how helpless children have become until university, when the kids are really on their own, and have to look after themselves, sometimes for the first time. We need to let them practice independence early, when they can learn  before the stakes are too high (50% of all first-year university students drop out).

And when they make mistakes, as everyone does, or when they initially fail at something, as everyone does, then we need to help them to find the resources within themselves in order to recover, to succeed. To do that, we need to work together to support our children, not to forgive them or to excuse them, but to help them do better and to become capable and independent. The amount of support depends, of course, upon the age of the child.


I believe that our children are capable of being independent, or meeting challenge, or undergoing some “meaningful suffering”, of learning some grit, and of developing into capable young adults. Our children will live up to our expectations, and they can all learn how to become independent, if we thoughtfully consider the future. What kind of adult do we want them to become? What are we doing now to prepare them for that?

My daughter made it through first year, in spite of the challenges. She made a deal with her roommate that she would clean up if the roommate paid for all the supplies for cleaning. She got to know her teachers. She is now completing her degree. McGill is a good school, but the foundation for her success is not in the university. It lies with the teachers in our school who challenged her, who supported her even when she failed, who believed that she could do it, who did not vary their standards, but did give a bit more help, and who allowed her to practice those abilities, skills, and dispositions that gave her some grit:  the confidence to face a challenging time, and know what to do in order to overcome.

As a parent, what I learned is fairly simple, but hard to do: I have to believe what my children said when they were very young, and I wanted to make something easier. Each of them, in their turn, would look at me and say, “Please Daddy! I can do it myself!”. And they can.