Son Loses Car When Grades Fall

Our expert advises parents not to use the car as punishment.
We bought our 16-year-old a car with the understanding that he was to get a job to pay for the insurance. We also said that if his grades suffered the car would be parked. During the past six weeks he has become irritable, frustrated, and his grades have fallen. He complains about his lack of a social life and his lack of sleep. He says that he hates school and sees no need to learn things he'll never use in his life. He even says he hates life.

I have told him that he can quit his job and we'll cover his insurance, but he must follow our stipulations. He is allowed to go out three evenings a week and Sunday afternoon. His curfew on the weekend is midnight. On Wednesday it's 7:00pm. His free time is to be spent doing homework and things at home. He is to improve his GPA to at least a 3.0. He will spend his summer working a part-time job to help pay the car insurance during that time. If he fails to meet these requirements, the car will have to go.

Should I have stuck to my original plan and taken the car away from him because his grades fell?

I don't think that you should have bought him a car on his 16th birthday on the condition that he needed to get a job to pay for the insurance. A 16-year-old neither needs his own car nor the pressure to have a job to hold onto it. The pressure mounted even further by telling him that he needed to maintain a certain GPA or else you'd "park the car." This bribe placed more pressure on your son and now he feels overwhelmed.

This reward/punishment agreement does not encourage responsibility. It has only increased his disaffection with school.

My advice is to take this car out of the picture all together, admitting that the gift of the car and the rules attached to it was your mistake. I am most concerned about your son's seemingly chronic dislike of school and his recently stated hatred of life. I want you to consider the fact that your son may be suffering from ongoing depression and/or an anxiety disorder. Get your focus off of trying to control him with your rules and this car. I'd like to see him get an opportunity to talk to an experienced therapist who treats many adolescents. Your boy is struggling emotionally and he's having a very difficult time facing each day and seeing why he should make an effort at all. Perhaps you hsould consider seeing a therapist yourself to get some unbiased, objective advice and support about helping your son. 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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