Keeping a kid on track


(Hadley Hooper for The Washington Post/HADLEY HOOPER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 20, 2013

Q. My son has always been an easygoing guy and is on several teams, has plenty of friends (although no best friend), gets along well with his 10-year-old brother and has been a good student, but he’s not doing so well this year. He finds that the seventh grade is much harder than the sixth and that the teachers expect much more of him. Judging from their complaints, he’s right. They’ve been sending us several e-mails every month, telling us that our son forgets to do his homework or forgets to turn it in or that he has no interest in doing his “best work.” Bad feedback and lower grades haven’t made him improve and neither do our lectures.

We want our son to know that school is important and that he has to focus on it, so we let him use his electronics only on Sunday after he has done all of his homework. We don’t check every assignment every night, however, because we want him to fly on his own. His adviser is going to talk with him about his planning, but what else can we do?

Our son turned 13 this fall. I know that puberty has just begun and that hormones can wreak havoc on the mind and the memory in middle school, but his behavior is still driving my husband and me a bit crazy.

How can we help our son get back on track? Or is it totally up to him?

A. It’s up to your son to get himself on track, but you and your husband have to remind him where to find that track, and you have to do that not once, but many times. Seventh-graders are often too spacey, too distractible and sometimes too interested in the opposite sex to find it for themselves.

Moreover, you have to give these reminders to your son respectfully — the way you would give them to your boss — because puberty can make young teens quite sensitive. Although your son wasn’t fazed by your stern words a few years ago, the same words would probably devastate him today.

You also might let your son use his cellphone after school because phones help a child learn how to socialize, but don’t hesitate to collect his cell on school nights and to ban television, too. Good oversight is seldom noisy.

Since a teenager will usually obey a kitchen calendar better than a parent, have your son scribble his activities on the calendar just like you and his dad do. When he sees how much everyone has to pack into the same day, he will begin to realize that he’s not the only card in the deck, although he’ll still think that he’s the ace of hearts.

Your son will focus on his homework more than himself if you pay your bills and answer your mail at the same table where he is working, and if you and your husband oversee his homework a little better.

Begin by checking the school’s Web site every day to see what assignments he has been given and then look over his homework every night. If you must criticize, do it with the same kindness that you would want your supervisor to show you, but don’t tell your son exactly how to write his book report or do his math. Instead, simply draw your pencil lightly under his mistakes and tell him that he can either fix them and erase the underscores, or just erase the underscores and call it quits. By leaving this decision up to him, you show him your respect, and this will let him hold his head high while he corrects his mistakes.

After your son has finished his homework, make sure he actually puts it in his backpack before he goes to bed. Supposedly any habit can be instilled in 21 days, but you should oversee this step until it’s absolutely automatic.

No matter how much you try, you and your son will still have some problems with schoolwork until he learns good study skills. To help him with that, order a revised edition of “How to Help Your Child with Homework” by Jeanne Shay Schumm. This book is a classic and just what you need.

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly and read past columns.

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