Around the time children reach middle school (or certainly by high school), they often encounter an academic subject they do not like. Whether it’s English, history, science or math, they will find the class boring, meaningless or irrelevant to their lives — no matter how much they love learning in general. Then parents have to confront the inevitable question: “Why do we need to learn this?”
In my experience, there are several layers to answering this question. The surface, knee-jerk, I’m-very-busy response involves a stream of words like “because the school requires it / that’s the way it is / I had to do it so let’s stop whining and get to work or there will be consequences.” This is the least effective reply.
A deeper layer of understanding involves asking a few questions before responding. Are there any social, nonacademic reasons he or she does not like the class, or is it simply the subject matter? If they confirm it is only the subject matter, it might be helpful to review the “well rounded” argument. You could explain that it’s important for everyone to be exposed to diverse fields of knowledge to grow into educated, culturally literate citizens. Also, some topics might become more interesting to them later in life, and at the very least there is value in learning of their distaste for a subject early in their educational journey.
At this point, you risk an eye roll from your kid, which I know from experience. But that eye roll led to my deepest layer of responding to the “why” question: I consulted my former self. Determined to keep trying to answer the question, I recalled that I once wrote a column for my college newspaper over twenty years ago about this very topic. Because I’m a hoarder of memories, I eventually found a copy of the column.
My own voice from the past spoke to my daughters in the present
Sharing that column with my daughters was revelatory for all of us. First, the headshot proved that I did, in fact, have voluminous hair in the distant past. More importantly, it showed that when I was close to their age I empathized completely with their concern: “For a long time one of my major pet peeves about certain subjects in school was their apparent lack of meaning and value in my life.” So a frustrating history was repeating itself, but I felt that by addressing the problem, we were not destined to repeat all the frustration.
Speaking of history, my attempt at humor back then focused on the seeming triviality of learning about The War of 1812: “I once learned all about the War of 1812 and used all the best memory-retention study techniques at the time, but now I could tell you little more than the date the war occurred.”
Fortunately, however, my former self developed an answer to the why-study-this-topic question that has become food for thought for my daughters. I argued that “by achieving good grades in those classes we view as meaningless, we prove to potential employers and admissions committees that we have learned how to learn [original italics]. Attaining a good grade in a class outside our sphere of interest displays that despite our negative opinion of its value, we were still able to produce enough motivation, intellectual ability, and sheer hard work to learn the material. … In the future we will be prepared to master the skills of our careers.”
Granted, this answer contains traces of a college student’s overconfidence and overlooks the value of self-improvement. It also does not settle the issue. But my daughters read it with begrudging acceptance, and we continue to talk about the motivation issue for certain subjects. Most importantly, we have learned that their current selves and my former self have more in common than we thought. Such empathy and validation can go a long way toward helping your children find value in—or at least survive — their least favorite class.