I woke up Sunday morning looking forward to a getting a jump on packing some Christmas gifts and watching my highly motivated New England Patriots continue their march toward an undefeated season.
But then my middle school son nearly made me choke on my coffee when he showed me the progress he had made toward completing his science project about animal and plant cells, an assignment he had mentioned in passing the day before. What little progress he had made! And how worried I looked!
Reading over the assignment, I realized he had a 10-15 hour work session ahead of him if he wanted to get it done. And that meant I had a 10-15 hour oversight session ahead of me in which I would have to push, prod, instruct, and encourage like a Marine-Corps boot camp instructor if there was any hope of completing this project.
After five hours of work (with a few short breaks), it was 3 p.m. and he was still a little shy of being halfway done. When I rejected his request to take another break and ordered him to “finish task 6 first,” he pleaded, “Dad, if I don’t take a break, I think I’m going to have a seizure!”
He was joking, of course. So I ignored his plea and he pushed ahead.
At some point, I can’t remember the time of the evening, I concluded that if I did not step in and offer more help, this project would still be underway when the rest of the family was eating their Monday breakfast. So I stepped in, first offering to type for him while he dictated to me because he is one of the world’s slowest typists.
Then I began helping him figure out how to draw various cell configurations. This is where the line between helping and doing becomes quite blurry. How much help is too much? I found myself wondering whether I was doing a little too much, depriving him of the opportunity to learn the important lessons of what happens to procrastinators. Needless to say, the exchanges between us became more testy as the clock ticked closer to 10 p.m.
But, finally, he (we) finished. He went to bed. And I got one of the worst bouts of insomnia I’ve had in years, because terms like mitochondria, nucleolus, nucleus, cell membrane, and a bunch of other biological words and images kept swimming around in my head along with the recurring question: Why the heck didn’t he tell me about this project a week ago? And if I helped him too much, did he learn the concepts he was supposed to learn? Or was this just 12 hours of pointless pain and agony?
A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.