Son Not Living Up to His Academic Potential

The shaming approach will never inspire a child to greater academic achievement.
My wife and I are struggling to get our seventh-grader to pay attention in school. He is capable of getting above-average grades but continues to exhibit a huge lack of responsibility. It seems that despite all we do to help, he still won't take the initiative to put in the effort. We have tried to write his behavior off as a typical "teenage" response, but we think he's an "at risk" kid. We have had him tested for ADD, etc. and all these tests turn out okay.

My wife and I are very concerned that he will never pick up the pace, yet we hold out hope that he will at some point mature enough to realize his life will "suck" if he doesn't make the grade. All his teachers seem to think our efforts are a big pain to them. They think we "should let him control his destiny." We feel that we can't allow him to wade too deep in the water and sink, even though a 14-year-old should be more responsible. Do you have any advice?

Perhaps your son is saddened and disappointed that you believe he will never measure up to the expectations you have for him. When kids feel that way, they often stop trying because they figure, "Why try much anymore because they will never be satisfied, no matter how well I do." They begin to think that they are worthy of being appreciated and loved only if they give you what you want in terms of academic success.

He also probably feels embarrassed by your constant communication with his teachers regarding his poor performance. Your approaches to inspire your son to greater academic achievement have not been successful because they are rooted in a shame-based foundation. I know that your intent is to get him to reach his potential but far too many of your approaches have been grounded in making him feel fearful and pressured, e.g. admonishing him that "his life will 'suck' if he doesn't make the grade."

Your son may or may not be underachieving academically. Does he have some fundamental lack of knowledge in key academic areas? Is he preoccupied by some emotional conflicts that he has not shared with you? I know that he believes he is a major disappointment to you and that this knowledge makes him feel very sad, confused and angry. I would highly recommend that you and your wife seek some family counseling from a therapist who has experience treating families with these problems. Please give your child a chance to reframe this situation so that it's not all about him failing you. Thanks for listening.

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

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