Q: My 15-year-old son, a high school sophomore, has stopped doing his homework when he doesn't like the subject or the teacher, or when he thinks it's stupid, and he's now failing two classes. He has also lied to me about it; he got away with the lies until the school sent notices, so he has all but destroyed my trust in him. This has been going on since grammar school, but it's getting worse as he gets older. I've tried everything I can think of: therapy, taking away the Xbox, using the Xbox or other things as rewards he can earn, letting him handle it on his own, partial involvement, hovering, crying and screaming — and I feel awful about those last two. I'm trying to take your advice to be careful not to damage our relationship over things, but I don't know what else to do. Failing major subjects in high school seems like a problem. Am I wrong to be so concerned? He won't work with a tutor anymore, either. He's a smart kid, so it's not a lack of ability. Please help.

A: I am going to be honest with you: I relate to your son. I started to check out of school around sixth grade and stayed checked out well through high school. I was bright but had stopped caring about most of my classes, and nothing changed my mind. Paid for good grades? Nope. Punishments? Nah. Rewards? Didn’t care. Threats? Didn’t matter. I was only affected by a handful of people, and otherwise, I couldn’t be reached. And this wasn’t even in a pandemic; this was just the ’90s.

As I see it, your son is a puzzle (as we all are), and we have a couple of the puzzle pieces in front of us. He is bright (a word that doesn’t carry much meaning), he doesn’t do his homework when he is disinterested in the subject and/or teacher, he lies about it, this behavior has been happening since grammar school, every manner of behavior modification has been attempted (and failed), you have tried therapy, and he refuses a tutor. There are many other things I don’t know about your son, including his health, any transitions or traumas for him or the family, possible learning disabilities or differences (yes, you can be bright and have a whole host of learning issues that prohibit learning in a “typical” way) and family structure. I could go on and on!

The big question is why. Why did your son begin to disconnect from school?

Although I can do little to help you in this note, I do want to keep guiding you to the “why” instead of the “what.” Of course we don’t want your son failing courses — no one wants that for their children — but our parenting goal is not getting him to pass classes. It is to understand him, so he can understand and help himself. At 15, he is well on his way to becoming a young man, and whatever is causing his disconnect from school is what needs your attention.

As you discover the “why,” you need to understand why rewards and punishments don’t seem to work with some children, especially when it comes to schoolwork. There is a time and place for typical behavioral techniques. Take something away that children love, they stop the unwanted behavior. Give them something they love, they repeat wanted behavior. Fine. But this only really works when children already care about school, their teachers and, yes, maybe the work. Caring about your integrity, what you produce and how your teacher feels about you is the primary driver of working hard, not rewards or punishments. If you have a teen who is accustomed to not caring about what his teachers or you think, then he is immune to your punishments and rewards. “Not caring” runs both ways; you don’t feel the “bad stuff,” and you also don’t feel the “good stuff.” As a person who didn’t care about a lot of things for a long time, I can say that it is a horrible way to live. I was wretched to parent and educate.

Let’s pause all the behavior-modification shenanigans. Let’s pause the fear of all this failing and what it means for his future. Let’s pause shoving him into therapy or tutoring. Let’s. Just. Stop. Repeat after me: “My son is not a project. He is a fully human young man, and he needs my support and love.” Repeat this over and over and over, then start getting curious. Invite him to eat with you, go on a hike with you, learn a video game with you, anything, and try to get to know him without an agenda. Every single class he is failing can be made up. Every single thing he hasn’t learned can eventually be learned, and I want you to tell him that. I also want you to highlight and discuss what he does well. He is passing classes! He is (maybe) doing chores! These failed classes are not the sum of his person, so stop treating them as if they are.

I also want you to tell him that it’s typical to not want to do well for people to whom we don’t feel connected. My spidey sense is that something (or things) happened in grammar school that caused him to armor up, and the armor has grown thicker. And of course he’s lying to you. When people feel ashamed of their actions (not doing homework and failing), they lie, then they get in trouble for the lie (adding on more shame), which adds to more lying. Let’s just assume he isn’t going to do the homework for some of these classes. We can take out the extra shame layer.

I can hear you having a panic attack, and I know I have not told you what to do to fix this situation, but it is not going to get fixed. Your son is not broken; he just needs support. Please call your pediatrician for a good work-up, and peek around at possible learning issues. (Giftedness is on the table, too.) Please personally reach out to a teacher whom your son loves and respects, and ask for support. What got me through high school? A choir teacher, an AP English teacher, my Mom Mom, my aunt, and the fact that my parents didn’t give up and send me out of the house. That’s it. Find someone your son cares about, and have them start talking, hanging out, checking in, etc. As a former teacher, I did this and was never burdened by it; it is called community, and we all need it.

The most encouraging part about your note is that you know this is a relationship-first issue. Keep that as your North Star, and as your son begins to thaw, you can add other strategies, such as rewards and punishments. Check out Cara Natterson’s “Decoding Boys” and think about seeing your own parent coach or therapist. You are doing hard parenting work, and you need a safe place for your fears and big emotions.

Good luck.

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