Q: Our 17-year-old son is flunking his junior year in high school. Flunking is not a possibility; it is a definite, a done deal. He has passed the point where he could turn this around. He’s very intelligent and made reasonably good grades until his sophomore year. He’s not depressed in the least, he doesn’t do drugs or drink, has lots of friends (all of whom are going to be seniors next year), and his teachers all like him despite his poor performance. He participates in class discussion but does not complete assignments and doesn’t study for tests. The school said they could promote him if we agree to have him classified as a “special needs” child (as in ADHD) who needs accommodations, but we refused. So, he doesn’t have enough credits to be a senior and will have to repeat most of his junior classes. We are at wits end. He wants to go to summer school where he can make up some if not most of the classes he flunked, but we have plans for the summer and aren’t about to make the whole family sacrifice because of his irresponsibility. He responds by threatening to drop out of school and go into the Army. We hope you have some ideas we haven’t thought about or already tried.
A: I’m reasonably certain that you haven’t tried the following brilliant idea: Stop trying to solve this problem. You can’t. You’re simply not accepting the evidence to that effect. Said differently, have no illusions to the effect that there’s a solution out there somewhere that you’ll someday find if you’re willing to persevere.
I’m very familiar with this problem. I’ve heard the same story several hundred times. In not one of these cases were the teen’s parents able to come up with a fix. Occasionally, one of the rebels-with-no-apparent-cause suddenly and inexplicably woke up, smelled the coffee, and corrected himself. Nothing the parents did brought this about, mind you. In the overwhelming number of cases, however, the youngster (usually male) ended up in some branch of the armed services, dropped out of school and obtained a GED through the local community college, or just rode off into the sunset, oblivious to the fact that there is a reality past the end of his own nose.
I can't say this loudly enough: Parents are not responsible for everything their children do. Their job is not to prevent their children from making mistakes — they can't. Rather, their job is to do all they can to make sure their children learn from their mistakes. In your son’s case, the learning in question consists of a simple reality principle: Privilege exists in direct proportion to personal responsibility.
Helping your son toward a confrontation with that principle begins with stripping his life down to bare minimum. That would include no discretionary driving privileges (If he has a car, sell it), “disappearing” his cell phone, computer, video game console, iPod, and any other electronics, and significantly lowering his standard of living relative to the family’s. In other words, provide for him only what he absolutely cannot live without. And yes, this reality therapy would begin before the end of this school year, extend through the summer, and into his second year as a junior.
You’ve already taken a major step in this direction by refusing to alter your summer plans so that he can attend summer school. In the first place, summer school is just short of a joke. A child who does nothing more than show up every day and stays awake during instruction will probably be given passing grades. In fact, a child who shows up every day and frequently falls asleep during class will probably be given passing grades. So, no, do not change the plans you’ve made for the summer. Oh, and by the way, if he threatens to drop out, get his GED, and join the Army, your response should be to throw a party.
I am not saying, mind you, that this approach will solve the problem. It may bring about an epiphany; then again, it may not. Your son may shrug off whatever you do. The goal is not to solve the problem, the goal is to represent reality to the greatest degree possible. Anything short of that is enabling.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.