Why we fight about school

There are some kids who are completely self-motivated and drive themselves to high levels of academic achievement without any pressure from their parents. But most kids aren’t like that.

Self-motivated kids are the exception, not the rule, so it’s pretty safe to say that most of us will fight with at least one of our kids about grades at some point.

So how do we prevent our relationships with our kids from becoming dominated by academics?

Here are a few places to look:

Problem: Conflicting time horizons.

You offer your son the reward of a Disney vacation to motivate him to work harder in school. It works… for about 24 hours. Then it’s back to the same old habits. The nine weeks of hard work and focus it would take to accomplish the goal is too much for him to manage.

Solution: Start smaller. Simple tasks (like completing 30 minutes of studying) followed by simple rewards (praise, a short break) work best.

Problem:Conflicting priorities (and your anxiety about their future).

Almost every parent has walked into a kid’s messy bedroom and asked, “How can anyone live like this?” To most adults (and a select number of children) a certain level of disorder is just intolerable. But for most kids, it’s really no big deal. These differing priorities are bound to lead to conflict, which won’t be completely resolved until the child matures.

The same kind of conflicting priorities can cause arguments in our discussions of schoolwork and grades. Most parents consider success in school important, while many kids are more concerned with making friends and having fun. Parents naturally think about the long-term importance of school, while kids often assume that everything will just work out somehow.

Solution: Focus on the process, not the outcome. Work with your child to build the habits they need to keep their rooms clean, and excel in school, without expecting them to be self-motivated enough to do it on their own.

Problem: Vague or unreasonable standards and communciation.

Kids need their parents to set standards for both their behavior and their performance at school. And there is absolutely nothing unreasonable about expecting your child to go to class, do the work that is assigned, and get reasonable grades in coursework that is appropriate for his or her abilities and interests.

But sometimes parents have expectations regarding grades or academic achievement that are simply beyond what their kids are willing or able to achieve.

In other cases, parents will say that they don’t care about grades, as long as their children “try their best.” But what is “their best”? Most kids don’t know, and most parents, if they are honest, don’t necessarily know how to clarify what they mean.

Solution: Set clear and reasonable standards, and communicate, communicate, communicate! A good place to start is reframing how you ask questions



This is an excerpt adapted from my new book Getting Past Procrastination.