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Encouraging Heroes. You can be one too.

My son is an adult, a mature, responsible young man who makes me proud on a daily basis. That’s why it’s funny to think back and remember him as a spirited seven-year-old, a kid who would’ve played football, baseball, and Nintendo all day long, if given the chance. Maybe a quick break for some mac ‘n cheese. Maybe.

One of my favorite memories is of waking him on a wintry day at about 6:30, telling him that it was time to get up and get ready for school. With his eyes still closed but a scowl etched across his face, he tightened his grip on the covers and whined: “How come?”

I laughed, and probably offered some typical parental response along the lines of “because you have to.” That’s what we say, right?

But what a great question. How come?

The simple, plaintive cry of a second-grade kid could be one small – but critical – component in the larger education issue.

I believe that, as parents, we do a poor job of answering the question asked by my son. “Because you have to” is the easy response when you’re harried and impatient on a snowy morning. But explaining ‘how come’ a child should trundle off to a classroom isn’t a one-sentence solution, nor is it a static concept; the answer for a seven-year-old will differ from one directed to a teenager.

Years ago the ‘why’ behind education was well-defined. Often your only escape from poverty required either a comprehensive academic background, or an apprenticeship with a master tradesman – which is an intensive education in itself. You knew what it took to get from Point A to Point Z, and, just as important, you understood the consequences of failure.

It’s not so obvious today. Despite the best efforts from terrific educators, school is a clearinghouse for many kids, an assembly line that passes students along from one step to another, employing tactics and strategies that can best accommodate millions upon millions of kids. Making it even more difficult, each child is distinct, a unique personality who probably learns in a way completely unlike the student beside her.

In many factories, it’s hard to see what the final product will look like at early stages along the line. The worker keeps his head down, plugging in one little part before moving it along to the next step where another piece is inserted. What comes out at the end bears little resemblance to the first nugget.

One of the best ways that we, as parents, can assist teachers is to help these young minds understand what’s waiting at the end of that long line. The ‘how come’ is the finished product, with all of its components installed. In second grade a student has barely begun the process, and it’s nearly impossible for them to understand why they’re getting up at 6:30 to trudge off to school.

The realization takes time. It’s best to plan each school year as an individual segment, explaining what they’re working toward during that particular stage. Consider occasional chats about how your own education prepared you for the responsibilities you manage today, whether it’s providing a house for the family, food that usually is taken for granted, or the gadgets that they enjoy. Those are by-products of education, real life demonstrations of the ‘how come’ answer.

Seven-year-olds probably won’t grasp all of it at once, which is why this is an ongoing conversation, and why the examples and lessons evolve over time. Rather than merely shipping them off to school each day in a mindless, mechanical routine, the goal is to gradually help young people understand why they’re investing this time. The process not only helps teachers, it instills a habit of goal-setting in the students.

At the end of the assembly line, we’ll all be better served.

Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty two years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people embrace the idea that Smart Is Cool. More info at www.DomTesta.com.