Q: I have a 14-year-old who just started ninth grade. I am wondering about homework/schoolwork and how much his dad and I should keep our noses in his business. The school has a parent portal where we can see his grades, assignments, what is missing, etc. My son does okay with school but misses assignments here and there, and I certainly don't see him doing homework very often ("I got it all done at school" is usually what he says when I ask). But when I see assignments are missing on the parent portal, I ask gently him about them, and he says: "I'm trying, Mom, it's a lot to remember." I totally get that. I have offered to help him organize with a planner, but he has said he doesn't need that, so I have backed off and simply said the offer is there if he wants it. I am wondering how much, if at all, to keep on him about homework, grades and assignments. My feeling is he would prefer I just not ask him about anything ever, unless he specifically asks me for help. I would kind of prefer that, too. I dread opening up that parent portal to see what is missing or what grades are low.

A: Ah, the parent portal. The technology is meant to help parents and the school more easily communicate about grades and work. But instead, the portal can often lead to resentment and significant misunderstandings between parents and children. For instance, if your child is a stellar student, they will feel crowded and discouraged by your “babysitting” and watching their every move on the portal. Nothing chips away at confidence and independence more than being surveilled unnecessarily, especially for a high schooler. On the other hand, high schoolers are famous for saying (and believing), “I got this,” even when they definitely don’t. A parent might be eager to allow the teen to experience natural consequences and not check the portal, only to find that, midway through the semester, the child has turned in zero assignments and is failing a handful of classes. What is a parent to do?

The first point to recognize is that the portal should facilitate communication between you and your son. It is one of many ways to talk about what is happening in school and should not be the primary way to talk about grades and homework. If you use it as the main way, you become “big brother,” and he becomes resentful. Instead, you can weave the portal in to your regular communication to help your son become more responsible for his work.

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Let’s forget these false extremes of “nose in his business” or totally backing off all homework assistance. Instead of hovering or disappearing, think of yourself more as a “potted plant,” as author Lisa Damour puts it. You want to be silently around — interjecting when needed and backing off when appropriate. When it comes to your son, only you know this dance. For instance, when you leave him alone, he misses some assignments. Does he make them up? Is it hurting his grades? More importantly, are the missed assignments hurting his confidence and belief that he can keep up? The ability to be around and help when needed is no small skill; this is a true parenting art. And though we may want your son to sally forth into high school with nary a worry, he probably needs you to help structure his time and his assignments.

So, instead of always staying in reaction mode (discussing the homework only when it is missing), how about you have a weekly school meeting? This is a time where you can check the parent portal, discuss upcoming assignments and celebrate what is going well for your son. Negotiate how the meeting will be structured (current grades, upcoming work, etc.), but no matter what, find something positive about how your son is handling school or his hobbies. You want to keep your son interested and encouraged in communicating with you about school, so don’t be a drill sergeant or a downer. These meetings can be a great time to get curious about how he likes to work. Does he need noise and action? Does he need silence and formality? Does he need movement breaks? Four years goes by fast, so if you can help him become more thoughtful about how he works, this will be useful to him in the long run.

Finally, these grade portals really aren’t perfect. Teachers will tell you that, parents of older kids will tell you that, and I am sure your son will tell you that, too. Maintain some healthy skepticism about everything you see on there, and give your son some benefit of the doubt. Good luck.

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(I would like to thank Annie McLean for her consulting help with this column. She is a 15-year-old sophomore at Wilson High School here in the District.)

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