"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
April 16, 2015
Teaching a Skill and Responsibility
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


One of the young women in my ward asked me to teach her a skill for a school project. She has to spend a significant amount of time with me to fulfill the requirements of this project. I’m happy to help her because I like her and I think the skill I’m teaching her is worthwhile.

However, this girl doesn’t understand her role as the learner. I gave her a list of supplies she needed to get, and she didn’t get any of them. She expects me to pick her up for our lessons and then take her home again when we are done.

When I give her an assignment to do at home, she doesn’t do it. When we are working together, she doesn’t listen, doesn’t follow directions and doesn’t want to help clean up.

I am willing to help this girl, but I am not willing to fund her project, drive her back and forth and clean up her messes.

How do I get out of this?


Here is what you do. Before your next lesson with this young woman, call her and ask if she has purchased the supplies and completed the assignment. If she has not, say, “Okay. Well, we can’t meet without those things, so let’s reschedule.”

Don’t sound put out or upset — you don’t want her to be too nervous to talk to you again. Be matter-of-fact, as if rescheduling your appointment is the only rational way forward.

Ask if there is a reason she has not done what you asked her to do. She might not have enough money to buy everything on your list. Or there might be a legitimate reason she has been unable to complete her assignment.

If so, you might need to scale back your supply list and your expectations for the project in order to match her resources and abilities. Or, you might be able to suggest solutions to whatever difficulty is in her way.

Then, the next time you see her, tell her you are excited to work with her. Ask if she has obtained the supplies and done the assignment. Follow up on any discussion you had of budget or other obstacles.

You might also mention to her mother or father that you are looking forward to teaching their daughter and that you gave her a supply list and assignment sheet. Tell them that she is welcome to call you any time with questions. This will keep the burden on the young person to meet her obligations, while also informing her parents that you have given their daughter clear instruction of what those obligations are.

From there, it is up to this young woman to do her project. If she never calls you again, you do not need to chase her down. It is enough to ask her in a friendly way if she still plans to do the project with you. But if she drops the project, you should tell her parents.

You might say to them that you are sorry she did not want to pursue the project. This is meddling, but if they don’t know that she has quit her project, they will thank you for the information.

It is interesting that in your brief experience with this young woman, you have discovered what it is she really needs to learn: responsibility and respect for other people’s time and money. Her deficiency is not a character flaw — it is a lack of experience. She is a teenager. And teenagers have generally not had the life experiences to teach them the value of an hour or a dollar.

It has probably not occurred to her that you do not have extra supplies sitting around for her to use, or that these supplies come out of your personal fun budget, or that you have better things to do than drive her around.

Fortunately, through your lessons, she has an opportunity to learn from you how to interact in a serious way with adults who are not her family members. If you can help her learn not just a skill, but to pay her own way and be prepared, you will be setting her up for success in future jobs and relationships.

I have three suggestions.

One, revise your curriculum to match this young woman’s abilities. When you say that she doesn’t follow instructions, I wonder if she is simply less adept than you were expecting. If she has never worked with her hands, for example, and you are teaching her a handicraft, she may be frankly unable to follow your instructions.

You may need to break tasks into smaller steps, explain vocabulary, demonstrate skills more carefully, critique more constructively (“move your right hand down one inch”) and allow her more time to practice.

Your revised curriculum should also include steps such as purchasing materials and clean-up. You gave her a supply list, but she may not know what to do with it. For one lesson, you might tell her to bring $45 and you could take her shopping. You could explain to her about the materials she needs and how to choose what to buy.

As to clean-up, if she has never had to clean up after herself, she will not know how. Your incredulity on this subject is beside the point: Teach the poor girl how to clean up after herself, and generations will call you blessed.

Two, set a professional tone. This young woman knows you through church and social settings, where you probably behave in a social, as opposed to a professional, way. I suggest that you demonstrate professional behavior for her, as if she were an employee you were training.

You needn’t be stern or critical; kindness and consideration for others are important in any setting. But during your sessions you should demonstrate that you take this skill and these lessons seriously. You might show this by turning off your phone and asking her to do the same; by discussing the skill instead of other events and people; and by expecting her to do tasks properly in a way that you would not in a social setting.

Three, ask her to get a ride to your home for the lessons. “Could you get here on Tuesday at 4? I can’t drive you, but we’ll have enough time to work if you are here from 4 until 6.”

However, transportation may be genuinely beyond her control. If she hasn’t got a driver’s license or a vehicle, and if she lives too far away to walk or bike to your house, you will need to schedule your lessons for times when her parents can drive her back and forth, which may be less convenient for you.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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