Here’s a question we sometimes get in our parenting classes or that Greg often gets in parent coaching sessions:
“Bobby just doesn’t seem to care about his grades. How do I get him to care?”
This exasperated parent is hoping that we’ll tell them the magic set of words they can say that will inspire their son to be motivated to do well at school. And they are always disappointed to hear that no such set of words exists.
“A teenager is like a Chinese finger trap,” we patiently explain. “Actively trying to get them to care will have the opposite of your intended effect.”
And how do you get out of a Chinese finger trap? By relaxing a bit. The solution here is the same. The parent actually cares too much about their child’s grades. They need to care less.
The Student Should Own Their Grades
The core message for such parents is that the student needs to own their grades. Teachers, tutors, and parents should not be the ones emotionally invested in the child’s grades. The student needs to be the one who cares. If we do all the caring for them, they’ll reason that they don’t need to care.
We want students to be in charge of their own academic life. We want them to become active agents, responsible for their own learning. This means they get to choose whether or not to use resources, take notes, and ask for help. They get to choose whether or not to do more than what is asked or use effective study techniques. And they get to deal with whatever outcomes result from their choices – good or bad. They get to feel whatever emotions accompany those outcomes – pleasant or unpleasant.
Parents Should Do Less Grade Management
When parents are constantly checking their children’s online grades and getting on their case about every low test score and each missing assignment, it sends the wrong message.
By micromanaging your child’s grades, you’re telling your child two things: 1) They can’t manage their school life on their own, and 2) They don’t need to practice managing it because you’re going to do it for them. I have never once seen this behavior result in greater effort or buy-in from a student. Every time, this sort of overparenting breeds either passivity or active resistance.
This is similar to a common issue around executive function. Parents often feel a need to step in and micromanage their children’s schoolwork, keeping track of due dates, upcoming tests, and project milestones. But if you do all the executive function work for your child, their brain will never be forced to develop the skills to manage their own schoolwork. You don’t get strong if someone else lifts the weights for you.
In fact, these two issues often go hand-in-hand because when a parent takes ownership of the executive function tasks related to school, they’re sending a strong signal to the child that they’re the ones who care most about the grades. The child, seeing that their parent is doing enough caring for the both of them, becomes a passive passenger.
Now, you can’t just flip a switch and turn your emotions off. You’re still going to care about your child’s grades. But you need to practice hiding those emotions or at least dialing them down. And you need to demonstrate through your actions – or lack of actions – that you’re not in charge of their grades. If your child sees that you’re no longer in charge of their grades, they’ll figure out that it must be their job to take the driver’s seat.
I’m also not suggesting that you ignore their grades completely, or that you become a totally laissez-faire parent. As always, the middle ground of parenting styles is best. There are ways to be engaged with your child’s academic life without micromanaging it. There are ways to hold your child accountable for their schoolwork without taking ownership of their grades.
Family Values and Natural Consequences
One way to do this is to clearly establish what your family’s values are around schoolwork and to define what the consequences are when you don’t live up to those standards.
For example, you could establish a rule that simply says, “When a well-meaning adult asks you to do something reasonable, you do it because that’s the polite thing to do.” Teachers are well-meaning adults, and homework is a reasonable request. If you choose not to do your homework, you’re effectively being rude to the teacher. In such a case, you can tell your child that they need to complete their homework, but the conversation doesn’t have to involve grades at all – it’s about manners.
And your child gets to live with whatever natural consequences result from their choices. This could mean having to stay home and complete their missing homework instead of going out with friends. This could mean having to retake a class over the summer because they failed it. This could mean having fewer options after high school. In all such cases, it’s important that the child feels the unpleasant emotional consequences of their choices because that’s what will motivate them to make better choices in the future.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Sometimes, however, students take too much ownership of their grades, meaning they become single-mindedly obsessed with them. There’s more to life than school, and there’s more to school than grades. It’s good to be proactively in charge of your own learning and your own academic future, but this should never come at the detriment of your physical and mental health.
Some kids may feel a very strong need to earn high marks in school, but they also need balance. They need a social life. They need exercise. They need sleep. They need play. They need to remember that they are more than their grades.
However, very few kids get to be so hyper-focused on grades without a parent accidentally setting a similar example in their personal or professional life. So if your child is in this category, take a look at how you’re spending your time. Are you making time for rest and recovery from stress? Are you giving yourself permission to be human? Modeling these things is a powerful way to help your child learn to find balance between their academic and personal lives.
Not Caring Might Be a Defense
Lastly, it’s important to point out that many kids put on a façade of apathy as a defense mechanism. The reality is, they do care. They want to do well in school. They want to build a bright future for themselves. But they’re struggling, and it’s safer to say “I don’t care,” than to say “I don’t know how” or “I can’t.”
They see other students being productive and getting their schoolwork done on time, and they see grown-ups working hard every day, and they don’t know how to do the same. They mistakenly believe that getting things done and overcoming procrastination are all about mustering brute-force willpower. They don’t know about smart willpower strategies that make it easier to do what you need to do. They don’t know how to generate their own motivation in order to beat procrastination. They need to see parents model these strategies.
They see other students scoring well on tests, and they don’t know how to do the same. They mistakenly believe that test grades are just about how smart you are. They imagine that studying effectively just means putting in tons of time. They don’t know about the power of spaced repetition or self-testing. They might need a tutor to guide them toward these techniques.
When students know how to do well, they are much more likely to admit that they care about their grades or, more importantly, demonstrate that they care through their choices.