By Adam Price
Let me reintroduce you to your son. If he is a typical underachieving teen, he complains bitterly about everything that is wrong with school. The teachers are stupid, the curriculum is irrelevant, math is just moving numbers around, and English is just moving words around. No one ever needs to know geometry, and Shakespeare is an absolute waste of time. Meanwhile you never see him studying. He is the boy who has no homework but his grades are slipping.
Here is what you have probably done so far. When you are sick with worry, you are nagging. Or maybe you are fighting—with him and/or with your spouse or co-parent. You have been so anxious about his future that you have pestered him constantly about homework and upcoming tests. You may have even enrolled him in a summer science class, as suggested by his college admissions counselor. Maybe you took him to see a therapist. To others he looks like a nice kid, soft-spoken, engaging, and polite, but to you he seems unmotivated, maybe even lazy. All of your begging, pleading, and berating have failed to light the fire of motivation under your son.
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey describes his experience with his own teenage son, who was failing socially, academically, and athletically. At first he and his wife encouraged him to be positive and hopeful. When this didn’t work, they sent him to therapy. But that made him feel like there was something wrong with him, which made the situation even worse.
At some point Covey decided that his relationship with his son was more important to him than his son’s success. He knew that the key to having a better relationship was to accept him as he was, rather than wishing him to be someone else. As a highly educated man who had made it to the top of his profession, this was impossible to achieve without undergoing what he calls a “paradigm shift.” To get there, Covey had to evaluate his entire belief system and the conventional wisdom about success and what is important in life. It was only when he became convinced that success, as defined by our society, was not important to him that he was able to accept his son as he was. As he reports, once he made this “paradigm shift,” his son started to improve in school and socially, ultimately turning the corner to become a motivated and successful teen.
Decades ago, boys who lacked motivation were called late bloomers. Today, however, we call them underachievers. A late bloomer has a chance to catch up; an underachiever is already behind. Eventually the late bloomer will find his way, but the underachiever needs help and needs it now. Helping kids to become more efficient, so that they can deal with unrealistic expectations, is not always going to work. Keep that in mind before you throw more money at the problem by hiring tutors, therapists, and academic coaches. These services might help, but they are not going to “fix” your son.
When parents complain their son is not achieving his potential, what they are really saying is “I believe he’s so smart that if he worked up to his potential 100 percent of the time, he’d be at the top of his class.” The danger here is that all of the emphasis is placed on the outcome rather than on the process. Our race to produce top-performing students who have achieved their potential by the age of eighteen may be robbing them of the very thing they need most to succeed: enough space to learn by trial and error, enough freedom to learn on their own, and enough time to grow. Even though this is, seemingly, the biological purpose of adolescence, these days we want to speed up the process.
Even more damaging, however, is the way this pressure to perform distracts us from core values that children need to learn—the value of owning their work rather than getting a parent or tutors to help to polish every paper or project, the value of taking time to do household chores rather than dedicating each effortful hour to homework, and the value of experiencing minor failures and setbacks so that they know how to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again.
When it comes to our children, we must ask ourselves, “Potential for what?”
What I have learned, in over twenty years as a clinical psychologist is that, above all else, these kids need less pressure and more time to develop. Yet this is not what most parents feel free to give them. Most parents aggravate the problem by either getting overly involved or not setting firm enough limits. Many do both at the same time—they oversee and they nag, but they never hold their sons accountable for the choices they make.
It is naive to think that boys can be pushed to excel through sheer force of parental oversight. In fact, overparenting may be responsible for having created the problem in the first place. Those “helicopter parents” we hear so much about, the parents whose chief offense is the loving impulse to do too much for their kids and to pay too much attention, may in truth actually be diminishing their children’s chances of developing their own wellsprings of motivation and productivity.
Your son is not lazy. His brain is still developing; he is searching for manhood, worried about his future, and in need of greater autonomy, more accountability, and the freedom to fail. In time, you will learn to ask different questions, listen more closely to his answers, and give him the trust he needs, so he can begin to believe in himself.
Mark Kelly is head of the lower school at the Assumption School in Houston, Texas. He has years of experience in education, having taught in Boston and New Orleans before landing in Houston. Mark told me that parents frequently approach him to say, “I have done everything I can possibly think of for my son, but he is still struggling. What more can I possibly do.”
To this pleading Kelly blunty replies, “You have done everything but step out of the way.”
Excerpt abridged with permission from He’s Not Lazy © 2017 by Dr. Adam Price. Published by Sterling Publishing.
Adam Price, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author, is an expert in learning disabilities and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Dr. Price lectures nationally to parents and educators, and has trained numerous clinicians in family and child therapy. He has written for both academic and popular publications, including the Wall Street Journal and Family Circle Magazine. Dr. Price maintains a private practice in New York City and Chatham, NJ. To learn more about Dr. Price, visit dradamprice.com.