And what worked instead
Jacob’s 2nd grade teacher called him a perfect model student. Above grade level in nearly all subjects, he breezed through his first few years with barely any effort.
But then, school gradually became more challenging. Jacob seemed distracted, and his teachers kept telling me he wasn’t meeting his potential. By fourth grade, he was no longer the perfect student.
I dreaded parent-teacher conferences. In hindsight, I was more worried about what his teachers thought about me than what was going on with my son. To me, Jacob was unmotivated and didn’t care about school.
Appearances can be deceiving, though, especially with children.
I now realize Jacob was never unmotivated. He simply saw himself as a failure when tasks weren’t easy. After all, smart people don’t have to struggle, right?
We asked him why he didn’t complete assignments, was so unfocused, and why he kept procrastinating. He didn’t know.
But we NEVER dug deep to find out WHY he struggled. We assumed he was choosing to not do the work and settling for C’s when he could have been earning A’s.
Thinking he needed to be motivated, we dolled out rewards and punishments.
When the initial consequences didn’t work, we increased the pressure. At one point, he went without dessert, social engagements, and technology for several months in a row (I’m almost embarrassed to say).
What were the results?
He continued to struggle, and our relationship suffered. We pushed him away even as he struggled more. He didn’t feel safe discussing his challenges, even if he could have put words to them.
I found myself in the same shoes as many parents today.
I kept thinking…
Why isn’t he motivated?
Why doesn’t he care about his grades?
What else should I do to get him to do better in school?
Truthfully, I thought my job at the time was to motivate (control) him. But I know now I can never really control anyone. I have influence, but no real control over others’ actions.
What I should have been thinking is…
What are the actual reasons he struggles to focus?
Why can he focus on some things but not others?
How can I support him in how he learns best?
Jacob wasn’t choosing to do poorly in school. He just didn’t—and still doesn’t—fit the traditional academic box.
Eventually, we realized pushing him wasn’t working. We found a school that better fit his learning needs, let him take ownership of his learning, and let go of trying to change him into someone he wasn’t. Magically, and thankfully, our relationship improved.
And you know what? Jacob found his way to a successful career and happy life.
What I’m still learning…
All children want to succeed. None of them choose to struggle and disappoint their parents and teachers. It’s a matter of can’t, not won’t.
And most importantly…
Kids do well when they can. It’s our primary job as parents to support them to find their own path to success.