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Doesn't Mind Bad Grades

 

Question:

 
Our 14 year old son doesn't seem to mind getting bad grades. I've tried to stay out of it and allow him to experience the ramifications of not turning in homework, and that resulted in him getting Ds and Fs. I really do believe it's his responsibility. It’s his education, and it’s his grades. And if he can take ownership of any or all of that, it's worth the experience of getting bad grades in eighth grade. But what if he really doesn't care? It really seems like a lack of attention and discipline on his part. Shouldn't there be ramifications (ok, consequences) at home for his bad grades too? Or are the bad grades enough? I've tried to have a conversation with him about what the issue is, and all I can get is that it's pointless and takes too long. He's a bright child, and he spends A LOT of time and energy avoiding the homework, energy he could be using to actually DO it. Should we keep allowing him to fail?? My husband adamantly disagrees.
 

Answer:

 
Hi! My name is Laurie Prusso and I am one of the people who answer questions from parents and teachers. I am the mother of six sons, all of whom survived adolescence, and I have twelve grandchildren. In my work life, I am a Professor of Child Development at a community college in California.
 
Your question is representative of the struggle that many parents are facing today. Whose job is it to get schoolwork done? How do we motivate our children to take responsibility? How do we really prepare them for the world of responsibility and accountability when we will not be there to encourage, coerce, or compel them to do it? It was a happy and sad day for me when I really discovered that I couldn’t MAKE my teenagers do anything they didn’t want to do! I’m so grateful that Positive Discipline was there to catch me.
 
Education is a powerful force for good in our children’s lives and in the world. This is what we want our children to know—that we want them to be successful and happy, and that education will help them be happy and healthy adults.
 
In your short note, you tell me a lot about him, but not much about you and your feelings, so I am going to guess that you are angry and hurt. I’m guessing this because you say that you think he doesn’t pay attention and isn’t disciplined and you refer to his grades as bad. You also say, “He’s a bright child,” so I’m guessing that you think he is not working up to his potential. I’m also guessing that you husband “adamantly disagrees” that the child should learn from the consequences of his choices without intervention from his parents.
 
Often, before parents get to the point you are at now, they have tried multiple strategies to “motivate” their child to perform. Withholding privileges, rewards, restriction, bribes, threats, punishments of many varieties, and so forth are used with the intent to get our kids to do what we want them to do. These, along with the power struggles that accompany them, have taught our children that when something is so important to US, it can be a point of contention and ongoing negotiation (power struggles, arguments, fights, time, and attention). Both parents and children play into this dynamic -- and it cannot change unless the adults change!
 
In Positive Discipline, we teach that all human beings are always seeking a sense of belonging and significance and that when we are not feeling that we belong or that we are valued, we “misbehave” in ways that help us feel that, if for only a few moments. You will find wonderful information for parents of teens in Positive Discipline for Teenagers, by Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott. Adolescence is a time when our children are moving toward adulthood, and our relationships with them will either help them on their way or hinder them from moving forward. We can treat them more like children, or more like adults. They will respond to our invitation.
 
One of the things I like to ask is, “How would I treat an adult?” In a given situation, what would I say or do? If it sounds disrespectful to an adult, it will feel disrespectful to a child! When we feel disrespected, we make decisions about what we will do, and your son is deciding that he will not do his schoolwork. He has decided that if he withholds his schoolwork, he will either challenge your authority OR he will hurt, embarrass, and humiliate you. It doesn’t really matter if he is right or not. What matters is that he feels defiant and hurt. (It could be that he feels hurt because he thinks his grades are more important to you than he is.) When children are challenged, they may meet the challenge with defiance. When children feel disrespected and hurt (withdrawal of privilege, restriction, nagging, reminding, discouragement), they may act out in revenge—trying to make us hurt, as they do. A sad side effect is that children hurt themselves when they try to hurt their parents.
 
Sometimes we say that we are really going to let a child fail and experience the consequences, but when it comes down to it, we give in. What a great lesson it would be, if you could really allow him to be in charge of this behavior, with your full encouragement, and then see what he would learn from it. The trick is that you must not taunt him, blame him, shame him, discourage him, or piggyback on the natural consequence. YOU have to be convinced that this is the right way for him to learn from the world. You will have to treat him as you would an adult. If he does fail, then it is likely that he will not want to fail again. This will only be effective learning if you do not enable him, bail him out, offer rewards, threaten or punish him. This requires your full faith in him that he has all of the knowledge, skill, and ability to succeed—and it sounds like he does.
 
If you believe that your son has the ability to succeed in school, you might try having a wonderful, encouraging conversation with him in which you LISTEN to him and speak very little. In Positive Discipline we learn about the value of “curiosity questions.” Examples might be: “How do you feel about failing? What does it mean to you? What do you want to achieve in life? What do you think you need to do to get what you want?”

It is important that you don’t hope he’ll say what you want him to say, but really listen. Hear what he has to say about school. For many children today it is a painful, boring, humiliating experience. Whatever his specific case, he is turned off to it and needs someone—YOU—to listen to him. Withhold your opinions, lectures, lessons and so forth. You and your husband can simply communicate to him that you have total faith in him that he can succeed if he wants to, and that education is of great value to both of you and you hope he does make that choice, but that you realize that it has to be HIS choice. Be sure to let him know that you will NOT be interfering, nagging, following up, or making excuses for him. It really is his job, if he wants it.
 
I recently had a student in this very predicament. She was able, after quite a bit of preparation, to have this conversation with her 14 year old. She worked very hard on preparing herself to listen and not to debate or refute what he said. He shared with her that he hated his history class. He was getting a “D.” The school had been sending notes home to her and all of that. She was able to listen to him. In addition to hating math, he decided that the best thing he could do would be to get a “C” so that he didn’t have to repeat it. She encouraged him, sent him on his way, and then gagged herself so she didn’t nag him or ask how he was doing etc. This young man, on his own power and by his own choice, raised his history grade to a “B” and all of his grades came up. She reports that she has changed from being an enabling, nagging parent to a calm and hopeful parent -- and that her children love it!
 
Because eighth grade grades don't show up on high school transcripts, unless he is in a preparatory school that leads to a private college, it is a wonderful opportunity to make mistakes and to learn from them. If handled well, he can move into a place where he really does take responsibility for his own learning. He may miss a big piece of academic learning - but he can catch up.
 
Eighth grade is a GREAT time for a child who has not already internalized that schoolwork is his own job to learn it! If he learns it now, then you have four years of high school to enjoy. You will never have to talk about when he is getting his work done, whether he can go with his friends or not, you will never threaten to withhold a privilege or put him on restriction! What great relationships you can have.
 
I do recommend that you get and read the book, or better yet, order the Positive Discipline workshop on 5 CDs or MP3 download. It is fabulous. (Available at www.positivediscipline.com or www.empoweringpeople.com)
 
Your son is almost an adult! He still needs you close for another couple of years, but he is pretty grown up. Treat him that way, and help him move toward being a mature, happy decision maker.
 
 
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