Q. I'm a single parent with a girl, 13, who is a little mouthy but generally well-behaved, and a boy, 12, who really has me worried.

The girl, an honor-roll student, studies several hours each night, but my son has little or no interest in school.

Their school wants them to keep notebooks for class work and homework, and though my son is better this year, he lacks the organization his teachers expect. Three of his teachers flunked him on his interim report card, based on attitude, homework and class work. I call these teachers every Friday to see if he's doing well, and if his report is good he gets his allowance.

I guess he can do the work, but he lacks the maturity and motivation to do it well. I don't compare him with his sister and, in fact, give him more attention, because we are usually discussing or arguing over his schoolwork. He barely passed sixth grade but his teachers didn't want to hold him back, since recent studies show that retention doesn't help.

But how can I help him? Should we see a family counselor? He skipped school once and has always been a follower. He is short for his age, and I know adolescence is hard for boys. He also shoplifted once and was brought home by the police.

His interests are video games and cartooning. He seems to have real talent in art, but doesn't get much encouragement at school. There is no male figure in his life and he has asked me to marry again so he will have a dad like his friends. It breaks my heart.

A. Some studies do show that it's hard for a child to repeat a grade, but it can be a lot harder to be passed along and then fail, day after day.

A child who's doing marginal work -- particularly in the pivotal sixth grade -- should only be promoted if the teachers are willing to give him special help the next year.

Ask the counselor to arrange enrichment classes to suit his talents, and to have him checked for learning disabilities. There can be many, many little glitches in the brain, and all can improve or disappear when the child works with a specially trained tutor.

You might also take your son to a developmental optometrist who looks for a subtle eye problem, which can interfere with learning. Although it's a controversial idea, many parents say it does exist and that specific eye exercises can correct it.

A little family counseling would help too, if only to break the deadlock between you and your son. While you have to help him meet the requirements at school, you also want him to know that you sympathize, you understand -- you're his ally. He has enough teachers bearing down on him without getting regular criticism from you.

As soon as he realizes you're really on his side, he'll be more amenable.

Now look at his strengths. As you've already noticed, he's good at cartooning, which means he probably would be good at painting and other visual arts. He also needs to sculpt with clay or join the camera club at school, to find out whether he likes two- or three-dimensional art more, since everyone likes to pursue whatever he does best.

If you encourage his strengths, you can encourage his schoolwork by helping him look at it as a necessary part of his life, but not the reason for it. Math will make a lot more sense if he knows that a cartoonist or a graphic artist needs it to block out his work -- and to handle all that money he'll make. By taking a child's talent seriously, he'll begin to take his schoolwork more seriously.

Your son's love of video games reflects another strength. It tells you he has quick reflexes and would probably thrive with daily time on a computer. The games and the word processing not only help the eyes track better, but regular use seems to make children think in a more logical, sequential fashion. If the school won't put your son in a class, perhaps you can buy a secondhand computer. One with a graphics capability would help both children, but particularly your artistic son, and the typing program would quickly improve his homework.

This may seem as though you'd be rewarding failure, but that's not true. You're only helping your son be successful, because success builds self-esteem and that's worth more to your child than anything else.

While encouragement helps your son, threats will not -- for school or anything else -- and a cutoff of his allowance may make shoplifting seem like the only option. Cut his allowance in half and put the rest in escrow instead, until he shows long-term improvement in school.

You will also want to cut off TV and outdoor play on school nights, as well as the nightly arguments about school. If his evenings are very humdrum, even homework will seem like something to do.

It would be a good idea for him to help his sister with her homework. Ask her to beg him to quiz her for 15 to 20 minutes every night. In the process he'll learn to pick up good study habits, because he sees how his big sister does it. A family is for helping each other.

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