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Help my daughter not become me
March 13, 2013 5:15 PM   Subscribe

My daughter is twelve, and she keeps falling behind in school, despite the school giving her tools that should keep her on-track. I think the problem is that she's just like me. My wife had great study habits, so she can't identify with our daughter's struggle. I can empathize, but my teachers, parents, and self couldn't break me, so I don't have any solutions to apply.

I'm forty years old. When I was in school, I was very intelligent, but I think that because I rarely encountered anything that took more than a few minutes to learn, I stopped putting effort into schoolwork. I was stubborn to the point of self-destruction. I would read a 300-page book in a day.

Now I see all these traits in my daughter. She rarely leaves the house without a book. The school has issued each student a planner to keep track of assignments, but she doesn't use it unless my wife is standing over her, telling her what to write. She tells us that she doesn't have any homework, but when my wife checks up on it, there always seem to be late assignments. (The school basically has its grade-book available for view on the Internet, so we don't have to wait two months to find out when there's trouble.) My wife isn't willing to let her fail, because she wants her to go to her alma mater, Scripps. We had her going to a therapist for a while, who gave her a diagnosis of OCD/Anxiety. I can see the OCD tendencies (I think that I have it worse than she does, but I haven't been diagnosed), but in my opinion, the therapist inordinately focused on a phobia of bees, which my wife and I had been barely aware of.

We can't figure out what to do, and I worry because I have seen the trajectory that my life has taken since I was her age:
In English class, I refused to write papers, resulting in consistently failing the classes. When I did write a paper, it was great, but more often, I would sit late into the night in front of a typewriter with a blank sheet of paper (or later, a computer with a blank word-processing document), and when I would finally go to bed, it would still be blank.
Without passing English, I couldn't graduate from high school. Near the end of my senior year, they told me that because I wasn't making meaningful progress in that area, I wasn't welcome back for a fifth year, in case I was considering it. Instead, I took the embarrassingly easy GED test. I also took the SAT, getting a 1500 (when 1600 was the maximum). I requested an application packet from MIT, but I never sent it in, because I didn't have any money, and refused to ask my parents for the $50 application fee. I didn't go to college.
Instead, I spent years doing only temporary jobs, and spending the rest of my days in my room, playing computer games and reading on BBSes. Eventually, my parents tried to impose a token rent on me, but they couldn't follow through with any consequences when I failed to pay it.
After a few years, I met my future wife, and tagged along when she started renting a tiny three-room cottage. I provided meager amounts of money, mostly by collecting unemployment and selling plasma, until she helped me go from a menial seasonal labor job to a menial year-round desk job at the same company. For a while, I was productive. I even got an "outstanding performance" award. But for the last ten or fifteen years, I've been increasingly unhappy.
As I observed to my wife recently, "If this was The Sims, about now I'd be thinking, 'well, I fucked up that one; nothing left to do but wait for him to die and see if I can do better with his daughters.'"

So anyway, that's what I'm trying to do here: help my daughter not turn out like me. Maybe some other time, you guys would like to try to salvage my own life.
posted by Tool of the Conspiracy to Human Relations (41 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think I would have been similar to this except for what my dad did: I got paid for A's. The specific system was based quarterly. I got $5 per A. If I got honor roll, the total doubled. If the next quarter I got honor roll again, it was $5 per A, then tripled. Etc. Reset to no bonus if I didn't get honor roll. It was the prospect of the reward that motivated me, rather than the "joy of learning" or something.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:20 PM on March 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


It sounds like you lack ambition and there was never a reason to try at anything because you never had a goal. Does your daughter have one? What does she want to be when she grows up? It's very hard to see the point of schoolwork unless it's explained where it can lead to. Find out what her passions are, and maybe she will see a reason to do her assignments to get there. So far as your wife wanting her to go to the alma mater, that's all well and good but unless the child wants to, what's the point. It's unfair for her to expect the daughter to live her life just to achieve your wife's ambitions. That rarely works anyway and is a recipe for resentment. Ask me how I know...
posted by Jubey at 5:21 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Have you talked to her about your experiences, in an almost-peer empathetic way (that is, basically reading her your middle couple of paragraphs about yourself)? If you haven't, it might help with her motivation a little bit.

I wouldn't expect miracles from it, and I'm sure others will have more behavioral approaches that will help in more concrete, but a small dose of "Hey, I know it's hard, and it's made my life hard in these ways, and I want better for you" might at least plant a seed in her mind that can help her push through.
posted by jaguar at 5:23 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


We had her going to a therapist for a while, who gave her a diagnosis of OCD/Anxiety. I can see the OCD tendencies (I think that I have it worse than she does, but I haven't been diagnosed), but in my opinion, the therapist inordinately focused on a phobia of bees, which my wife and I had been barely aware of.

What did your daughter think of the therapist? Was it her decision to stop going? Is she getting any support for OCD/anxiety?

What does your daughter say when you ask her about the late assignments? "I forgot" or "I don't care" or similar?
posted by jacalata at 5:33 PM on March 13, 2013


Lead through example and try to figure out how to motivate yourself so that you're happily engaged in the world again.

Short term, I know some families where the parents did the "cash for A's" thing DoubleLune described with varying amounts that were meaningful to their high school age kids, and it did work very well.

If you don't think the previous therapist did a good job, you can always try someone else.
posted by steinwald at 5:33 PM on March 13, 2013


When I was failing classes in middle school (because of reading books in class and not doing homework), my dad sat me down and explained that even if I didn't see the point in doing penmanship exercises and didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, it was important to do well so that I could keep doors open. So if I wanted to become a famous marine biologist (or whatever) down the road, I wouldn't be held back by my 9th grade science grades. Whether that's true or not, it stuck with me and I cared a lot more about school, which before then felt really pointless.

The other thing that worked was taking away my internet for a semester one time and giving me video games when I got good grades. Maybe there are some books your daughter would like to earn?

Also, are there any tutoring centers you could take her to? They often offer weekly or after school "organization" classes that could help her with. She might just not have the coping tools. Lots of kids have trouble adjusting to the homework load after elementary.

Also also, she's probably well aware she's a lot like you. So don't put yourself down. If she hears you talking about giving up and not feeling like it's worth it, why shouldn't she think the same things?
posted by sonmi at 5:40 PM on March 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


A lot of what you wrote sounds like both you and your daughter are possibly showing symptoms of ADD (nowadays known as ADHD-Inattentive) which a lot of therapists may not be trained in. It's also highly genetically heritable. I notice the tag on this question of 'ADD' which implies you might at least be thinking of this.

"I would sit late into the night in front of a typewriter with a blank sheet of paper (or later, a computer with a blank word-processing document), and when I would finally go to bed, it would still be blank." This isn't typical 'refusing' to write papers, or procrastination.

I would suggest at least talking to a psychiatrist about it - for you or her.
posted by Ashlyth at 5:42 PM on March 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


I'm not a parent, but I work a lot with adolescents. Have you considered talking to her about her perspective on what's going on? Maybe her learning needs aren't being met by the school (i.e. their tools to keep her on track don't work with how she learns). Maybe she's not engaged enough. Maybe she needs more challenging classes. Maybe she needs a different school!

Please also check out this resource on stages of adolescent development:
http://www.adph.org/ALPHTN/assets/043009_stages.pdf

Some of the things you describe are totally normal (see specifically the intellectual/cognition and autonomy sections).

I would also try, as best you can, to not project your past on your daughter. You could share, but be careful, as too much sharing might inadvertently put extra pressure on her and also exacerbate her current developmental need to figure out her SELF.
posted by Betty's Table at 5:46 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Go to a neurologist or psychiatrist and tell them this story. This is classic ADHD behavior. It is particularly insidious in highly intelligent people because they have the intelligence to be able to get by. They can pass tests and "show potential", and because of that, never really had to learn to develop study skills. They can do zero homework and crappy last minute papers, because they will break the curve on the test and average out to a C. Whereas someone who doesn't have quite as much natural talent will have been failing by 2nd grade and ADHD will get diagnosed.

One of the less talked about symptoms of ADHD is hyper focus. Reading 300 pages a night, for example. Being "stuck" on a television program or video game.
posted by gjc at 5:48 PM on March 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


Does she have any goals? Have you sat down with her to discuss any potential goals and really listened to what she has to say? I am similar to you(except about a decade younger and similarly struggling with a career) but I graduated from college...after changing majors a zillion times and ending up with a psychology degree because it was the quickest way to graduate with something...after 6 years. (icing on the cake: graduated with a gpa of 2.6)

Anyway, my parents never really talked to me about goals and I was always a terrible student, so I was always the one with "so much potential" but I think people didn't know what to do with me and no one ever really talked to me about how I might get my life together. It was more of a "why can't we just get her to do her homework?" type thing when I wasn't doing it because I didn't see the point/the big picture.

Obviously it is ultimately up to the person to get him/herself together, personal responsibility and all, but the people I know who had mentors seem to have done the best in life and been the most focused.
posted by fromageball at 5:49 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's easy to cast this as laziness/stubbonness/contrariness, both in your daughter and in you, but the presence of the OCD/Anxiety diagnosis (which you apparently also identify strongly with) gives me pause. I wonder if perfectionism is perhaps playing a role here? Obviously I don't mean perfectionism as it's often used - putting in epic efforts to make an outcome perfect - I mean a sort of paralysis that comes from knowing that what you produce will not be perfect, which makes it impossible to start.

If that's the case, I would advise you to think about how you participate in change for your daughter. Make it clear to your daughter that she doesn't need to produce perfect work, she doesn't need to be a straight A student, and if she's really giving things a go its not the end of the world if the result is still average. Bizarrely, being told that you are smart/talented/capable/have potential can actually feed into the anxiety pattern, making the expectations seem very high. Being praised or rewarded for outcomes (like As) may make the outcome seem unachievable. I would advise you or your wife to help your daughter break things down into manageable chunks, and then praise/reward her for finishing those things - eg. a reward of some kind for completing all her homework each night for a week. And where she has larger assignments, help her to break them down into their component parts, then praise/reward her for achieving each of those things. It may feel like it's a lot of work for you, and that you're more involved than you ought to be at her age, but I suspect there may be a big knot of anxiety around schoolwork right now, and only by untying that knot can you create a situation where things can be different.

I also agree with those above that it might be wise to re-enlist the help of a therapist, and I agree that it would be worth investigating whether ADHD plays a role, for you or your daughter.

*I recognise some of your daughter's behaviour from my own childhood, so it's possibly I'm just projecting my issues onto her - so take what I'm saying with a grain of salt. However, it's worth noting that I finished high school and two degrees, and now I work in a professional occupation, so take heart!
posted by Cheese Monster at 5:50 PM on March 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


Don't do cash for 'A's. That can be demotivating if 'A's are out of reach.
If you do want to go this way then use a sliding scale of reward so that there is a reason to try even an A isn't possible.

But

You are better off using premack's principle - reward the least likely behaviour with the most likely. Want to watch TV? Show us your homework book. Want xbox this week? Show us you completed all your work last week.

Just be sure you reward effort, which your daughter can control, and not results which she will have less control over.
posted by srboisvert at 5:52 PM on March 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


Reading the "Cash for As" reminded me that my parents did "Books for good report cards." If my brother and I did well (and the bar was set differently for each of us, as I was an easily-engaged student and my brother struggled more), we got to go to the best local bookstore and pick out $50-100 in books.

I suppose Amazon giftcards could work the same way.

It never made me feel that I was being paid for good grades, but that I got more of the stuff I liked (BOOKS!) if I managed through the more boring stuff.
posted by jaguar at 5:59 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another perspective: for people with organization issues, the process of planning something, even coming up with a thing to be planned for, is often insurmountable. Whereas the "good students" figured out how to plan work and churn through tasks. They make lists, whether in their heads or on paper, and they forget that they ever even learned this step in the process. This skill needs to be taught and practiced, no matter what is or isn't wrong. This might just be a skill that your daughter isn't good at and needs help with.

Another thing that popped into my mind, and this might be key: ask her to think about what she is thinking about when she fails to write down her assignments in her planner. Where is her head? This may be instructive as to what she needs to do to get on her path.

I'll add that anxiety is often co-morbid with ADHD because a life of bouncing from one struggle and disappointment to the next is very stressful, and this leads to constant anxiety.
posted by gjc at 5:59 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was the same way as a child, and I think it was a combination of:
1.) My parents not ever once encouraging me to make or reach any goals or develop/encourage any of my passions,
2.) Anxiety about being forced by everyone to decide what career I had to choose (for the *rest* of my *life*! arhh!) and,
3.) The unrealistic expectations of my grandparents who were very prominent in my life (They insisted that because I was smart, I needed to go into medicine just like my grandfather.)

So I agree with the previous posters about having a peer-like talk with her about your personal experiences and then going about helping her develop some of her passions/talents and show her how school can get her there without putting on the pressure of someone else's expectations(her mothers, in this case), or of her needing to stick with it for the rest of her life if it doesn't pan out.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 6:04 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


My wife isn't willing to let her fail, because she wants her to go to her alma mater, Scripps.

This really stood out to me because what if your daughter doesn't want to go to Scripps? I'm totally projecting, but maybe it's meaningful. My dad went to Yale and I somehow convinced myself that this was the only option that would be acceptable to him. I had a plan that I would get into the University of Chicago (I did) and somehow 'trade' him Yale for U of C if I got in. I didn't get in to Yale. I was in London with my dad and my brother and I remember my mom phoning to say I hadn't gotten in. My dad was out somewhere. I have an absolutely clear memory of sitting with my brother crying because a) this pressure of convincing my dad U of C was acceptable was gone and b) I was convinced he would think I was a failure because I hadn't gotten in to Yale. The irony? Surprisingly myself, I turned down U of C and went to Berkeley. However, this whole business is seriously still an issue between me and my dad. It's almost entirely on my end, but it's still there 9 years later.

Ignoring my issues with my dad, your daughter sounds an awful lot like my brother. At my high school, you basically had to do one thing your junior year--write a term paper in US history. My brother? Didn't write it and didn't write it. Then realised that, as it was due the day before Spring Break, if he didn't hand it in until after Spring Break, he'd only be marked one day late. He and my mom spent Spring Break fighting with each other about the fact he wasn't writing the damn paper. (Oh, and he was sick that week.) This continued in college. (Guess what? My brother went to Yale.) He got through by professors letting him hand in late work, basically. (And even then it's a minor miracle he did it. I remember waiting for hours one Christmas for my brother to email his paper in hours before grades were due. He'd said he was nearly done and then we'd watch Doctor Who. We watched the episode at 12.30am.) On the plus side, having survived school, my brother seems perfectly functional in his job (he's a programmer). But I don't think anyone knows why. We thought he'd be better in college because he'd be interested in the coursework and that was true when it came to programming, but not when it came to essay-writing.

At some point, the school attempted to diagnose him with a learning disability, but was all but flummoxed when faced with someone of above average intelligence. There was clearly something going on, but the school was completely hung up on the fact that my brother could do the work if he, er, did any of it. There was a hopelessly unspecific IEP that never resulted in the school offering useful services. (The high point was when my brother was graduating and they wanted to meet to 'discuss his transition to college'. My mom phoned back and said 'You did nothing to help him survive high school or get into college, so I doubt you have anything worthwhile to say about his 'transition to college', so I'll not take the time off work.') I suppose all of this is a long way of saying that there is almost certainly something going on with your daughter and the trick is finding someone who can a) figure out what it is and/or b) help your daughter figure out how to cope better with school.
posted by hoyland at 6:17 PM on March 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


I agree that you should look into ADHD. Particularly the inattentive subtype.

You, and your daughter, sound just like me. In the third year of university, I finally got diagnosed and everything just clicked.

Even if you don't want to look into getting the diagnosis, some of the strategies for dealing with ADHD might help. Things like breaking tasks into small chunks and using fidget toys (I like silly putty).

If there is any way to connect what she is doing in school to something she is interested in, that could be really helpful. For me, if there was an added level of challenge to a topic (even if I didn't care for the topic), I was engaged because I wanted to figure it out, solve the puzzle.
posted by sarae at 6:38 PM on March 13, 2013


My wife isn't willing to let her fail, because she wants her to go to her alma mater, Scripps.

One, this is a huge thing to put on the shoulders of a twelve year old. I really, sincerely hope that your wife hasn't shared this tidbit with your daughter, because if I were a teen with OCD/Anxiety, you know what would make me miserable? Knowing that my mother wanted and expected me to do Big Deal To Her Thing. I was that teen, to be honest, and my way of dealing was to totally stop trying, because if I wasn't trying, then I couldn't fail. Anxiety is a big damn deal, and if you're not dealing with that head-on (and the fact that you said that she was going to a therapist for a while, but not, presumably, any longer makes me think that you're not) you're doing her a huge disservice.

Two, your daughter's twelve. That's, what, sixth grade? Since when do colleges look at middle school transcripts? Looking at the Scripps website, they want transcripts from any secondary school attended, teacher recs from junior/senior year of high school, and SAT/ACT scores. The time to let her fail is right now. The next two years are last years in which she can fail academically without impacting her chances of getting into whatever college she'd like to get into.

Have you asked her how she feels about going to college? What she interested in? What she'd like to study? Because school can be awful, especially for bright kids who are unmotivated because it doesn't seem to have any relevance to anything that they're interested in. It's not fair to expect her to do well just because your wife wants her to--you have to make it meaningful for your daughter, as well.
posted by MeghanC at 6:41 PM on March 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


Maybe some other time, you guys would like to try to salvage my own life.

I don't know if you can truly help your daughter until you first help yourself. If she's struggling with the same issues you currently are, what exactly are you supposed to tell her? You aren't showing her the path out of the woods, you're laying down and begging her to find her own way out.

I've got a lot of the same issues, horrid anxiety and procrastination problems, and I'm working on solving it for myself. One thing I can say with full honesty, I would not have been able to do this for myself as a child. It is just too much. I would have needed an adult to guide me.

(Admittedly, being in therapy, I kind of still do. But at least now I am capable of tracking that down for myself, your daughter can't.)

It's hard. It's really really hard. You need to do it, for both of you.
posted by Dynex at 7:03 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


This sounds like me. Very long story very short: get her to a psychiatrist. Whether you want to go the meds route or not, having someone there to coach her will be an immense help.

And don't be scared of drugs. I have ADHD fully (as in, with hyperactivity) and I avoided drugs until I was 17 years old. Going on medication changed my life. In fact, I rank it above Accutane on "things I did that changed my life forever." I went from a scatterbrained, confused kid who would not turn assignments in simply because I hadn't heard the teacher ask for them (I had them! In my backpack!) to someone pursing two honors degrees and a minor. My mom once even said that she is so grateful my middle school didn't "track" students, because she knows I wouldn't have ended up with the regular students.
posted by obviousresistance at 7:11 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mostly, reinforce her love of learning and doing with more love. School just ain't as important as that.

Being once in her shoes, you know it too. The tricky part is getting your wife on board... take it slow, explain your own experience, and she will see that spark in both of the people she loves, and be, eventually, OK with it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:17 PM on March 13, 2013


For a certain kind of creative, intelligent person, school feels like prison. She needs to meet a certain standard, to get by and graduate, so there are some tedious awful things she will need to focus on. It could be a good idea to have an honest talk with her, so you make it clear that you shirked on this stuff too and there were real consequences for it. But don't worry about crap like A grades and specific colleges right now.

Help her figure out what her actual goals are, and what's she's actually passionate about, and then push her to work hard on THAT stuff. If she wants to be a writer (for example) push her to take it seriously and channel her energies into a paying career that involves writing. It doesn't matter if she gets C's in math or if she ends up going to a community college, if she ends up doing something that really matters to her. That is the real goal: a life spent doing something that she cares about.

Steven Spielberg once admitted that he never learned how to do fractions, and he ended up dropping out of college. And he turned out sort of OK, because he worked hard on the shit that really mattered, instead of agonizing over stupid fractions. Fuck math homework. (Well, unless it turns out your daughter really cares about math.) She sounds like she has the smarts to get by in school, and there's no shame in just getting by in school, so long as you are putting your real energies toward something that matters.

You need to find a goal for yourself, too. There is something you are passionate about in this life. It's not too late to make it happen. (Assuming your great passion isn't a field that middle-aged people are shut out of, like ballet or something.)
posted by Ursula Hitler at 8:13 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


. I wonder if perfectionism is perhaps playing a role here?

I had this thought, too. I never went into that pattern in high school, but by god the first year or two of university was like this times a billion for me. Ironically, fear of failure was actually prompting me to fail. I would write up whole essays and not hand them in because they weren't good enough (god, so glad I embraced mediocrity as I got older!).

The reason I bring this up is that you and your wife both seem to be at pains to point out that your daughter is quite smart, and could certainly do the work, if she wished. Sometimes that kind of thing - praising innate ability, rather than effort - can put a lot of pressure on a young person. What if they don't measure up to expectation?

For me this was compounded by the fact that, as I'd never really needed to try in high school, and when I did the results could be pretty arbitrary, high school teachers being what they are, I had literally no academic work habits, or ethic. I had a work ethic, a good one, but I was absolutely unable to apply it as it came to academics. Don't assume the school has taught your daughter either how to work, or why she should do it. Mine did neither, and it was a slow, frustrating, and confusing time for me until I learned how to actually work academically.

Does she know how to study? Does she know how to write and structure an essay? Does she know how to make work interesting to her? Because that last one is the critical one. Are you and your wife sitting down and doing homework and study with her? If you have the time, why aren't you? My parents never did with me - the marks didn't justify the investment - and so I never learned how to do those things.

I'm not trying to downplay ADD etc, but I think also a lot of this could be helped by firstly talking with your daughter to get her feelings and understand why she isn't doing this stuff - she's not a carbon copy of you, I guarantee - then sitting with her and doing the work together, asking the questions, prompting the research, coaching the writing and making her engaged and interested. This is an investment that will pay rich dividends in the future - for both your daughter's outcomes and your relationship with her. Rewards can certainly play a part here, but reward effort, not outcome.

Also, I think you need to look into your own attitudes, possibly with the help of a counsellor. Your question here reveals a low self-esteem. Frankly it sounds like you've written yourself off. "wait for him to die"?! WTF kind of thinking is that, you're 40 for God's sake, not 89. If you think your daughter and family setting is unaffected by this destructive, sad kind of thinking, you are very mistaken. You owe it to your daughter and wife to get on this, if not yourself.

It's not too late for your daughter, and it's not too late for you. My dad was 49 when his first marriage ended, and the change he underwent until his death two weeks ago at 68 was staggering. Staggering. He was a much happier person for it.
posted by smoke at 8:17 PM on March 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


I was exactly the same way. I waited till I was about 34 to get tested and found out that I do have ADHD. Remember that the "hyperactive" part of ADHD is not, necessarily, physical hyperactivity. It refers to hyperactive attention. As in the experience of "zoning in" on one particular thing that interest.

I got tested and got on medication. It did wonders. I have moved up to a significant management position at my corporation, representing us with multi-million dollar clients now.

Also, according to some studies, there is almost a 50% higher likelihood that a person with untreated/diagnosed ADHD will also have some form of chronic depression. The indication is that it is likely a result of the ongoing stress of managing the ADHD without tools/treatment to do so.

As a caution: One of the things this also led to was an inability to manage money because accounting was not something that really captured my interest.

If you are opposed to medications, you could also look at something like the book Getting Things Done or some other productivity management system. If she had a system that worked for her and one that fit the way she does think and process information, she might really adapt to it.
posted by slavlin at 8:18 PM on March 13, 2013


And he turned out sort of OK, because he worked hard on the shit that really mattered, instead of agonizing over stupid fractions. Fuck math homework.

By the same token, most people who drop out of college and are unable to do fractions don't end up like Spielberg, even the ones that really want to be. For most people, a large part of life involves doing things (work) that don't really matter very much to them, to the world at large, or are very interesting or especially pleasant - in order to get the money or lifestyle to do things that really matter to them. The skill to complete uninteresting, arbitrary, meaningless or somewhat unsatisfying work is a super dooper valuable one, I think, cause I bet even Spielberg did a shitload of that before ET came along.

Cultivating that skill has been a very worthwhile and valuable accomplishment for me, and has led to a very good life indeed.
posted by smoke at 8:21 PM on March 13, 2013


I can see a lot of myself in this story as well. I'm now diagnosed ADHD, if it matters (also medicated but that's a completely different issue).

Try empathizing with your daughter. Tell her how you've been there and focus on the feelings you had at the time and the similarities you share. Don't turn this into a lecture about her impending doom/failure - she's probably aware of her struggles and catastrophizing, especially if her mother is pressuring her to go to a specific (presumably high brow?) school. Get her input on the situation, ask her what she'd like to see herself doing (presently, not a big in the future talk, that can be scary), and basically include her in her own education rebound.

I also agree with posters that point out that the important thing is her love of learning, especially self-directed learning and the pursuit of personal growth. If she says that she finds school boring and would rather learn shit on her own - I totally empathize and I suggest you do too. It means a lot to have someone agree that things aren't 100% super important to you and super fun to do and sometimes that can help with motivation.
posted by buteo at 8:24 PM on March 13, 2013


"By the same token, most people who drop out of college and are unable to do fractions don't end up like Spielberg, even the ones that really want to be."

Spielberg had to do a lot of shitwork to become Spielberg, but he focused most of his energies on the relevant shitwork. That required a certain amount of shutting out what other people told him was important. Fractions had nothing to do with Spielberg becoming Spielberg, and despite what your math teachers will tell you, it is quite possible to live a great life and still be crap at math.

As I said, this kid does need to focus on the irrelevant and uninteresting stuff to a certain extent, so she can get by. But if she wants to be a veterinarian, for example, she needs to focus mostly on that and do all of the shitty stuff necessary to become a veterinarian. Dissecting frogs, studying drug interactions, milking goats... I don't know, whatever un-fun stuff vets need to do. If she gets a C in history, that's not the end of the world.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 8:48 PM on March 13, 2013


I had a lot of those things going on when I was younger too (always with a book, bored at school). Though I was not lacking for ambition, if I ever showed ambition, I was given busywork rather than real challenges. It got to the point I would come home crying after school, I was so bored, but not to the point where I stopped doing what was required. This was eventually resolved by skipping a grade, and when it started showing up again, seeking out still more challenging classes.

There is no doubt in my mind that if we hadn't sought out something more challenging, I eventually would have given up and channeled my energies into something less productive. I have 0 regrets and infinite thanks to a mother that was willing to fight the school system and jump through hoops to help make it happen.
posted by whatzit at 3:53 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I didn't do any senior maths and I wound up doing stats at uni many years later.

School is not the be all and end all of life.

For a certain kind of creative, intelligent person, school feels like prison.

Repeated for the truth. I was acutely aware of just how much of a waste of my time it was. But I haven't wasted my life once I left - I had passions and I followed them.

Help your daughter cultivate love for something and help her find meaning where she can. Get her to focus on the things where she can really get involved.

And your wife needs a reality check. I also think you're projecting a bit here - your daughter is an individual, not you.
posted by heyjude at 3:53 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


As I said, this kid does need to focus on the irrelevant and uninteresting stuff to a certain extent, so she can get by. But if she wants to be a veterinarian, for example, she needs to focus mostly on that and do all of the shitty stuff necessary to become a veterinarian. Dissecting frogs, studying drug interactions, milking goats... I don't know, whatever un-fun stuff vets need to do. If she gets a C in history, that's not the end of the world.

See, that's not exactly true. Vet school is really hard to get into. Grades matter,and the ability to work hard in classes, not all of which will seem immediately relevant to an individual student really matters if you want to become a veterinarian. I don't think your average veterinarian uses calculus in every day life, but if you can't pay attention to and do well in the calculus, it will likely be an impediment to getting accepted to vet school.

The OP seems to be in a pretty good position to realize what the consequences of never getting one's act together are. (Hint: it does not result in becoming Stephen Spielberg)
posted by deanc at 4:57 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


To jump on the ADD train, consider reading the book You Mean I'm Not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy?. It can give some insights into what's going on.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:18 AM on March 14, 2013


Wow, this really does sound like ADHD--in both of you.

Other people have given excellent advice about getting your daughter tested and properly diagnosed--even if you're leery of medications, there are plenty of resources out there on strategies for coping with one's haywire brain, for both adults and children. I have been finding a book by Nancy Ratey, The Disorganized Mind, particularly useful, and you might want to read it yourself.

The fact that both of you seem to be suffering from it has a silver lining--you know what your daughter is going through, and as you learn to cope with it better yourself, you can help her in turn.

But I wanted to say especially that your life is not over. You can, for example, get a college degree! Community college is a great thing, because you won't get rejected, tuition is usually pretty cheap, and often you get the same quality teaching that you might get at a big four-year university. And CCs usually get a lot of students with learning disabilities of one kind or another, including ADHD. I recently took pre-calculus (I stopped taking math after Algebra II because I was barely squeaking by in that class with a C), and was given time and a half to finish the exams, as recommended by my psychologist, and the extra time made all the difference. If you figure out what would make you happy, you can usually do two years and all your general coursework at a CC, and then transfer to a four-year-college--students these days are doing it all the time to save money.

You're depressed, and it's going to rub off on your daughter in the process. Give yourself permission to learn and do something you really want to do, and that could very well help you to feel less hopeless--and your daughter will get to see you modeling good student behavior.

ETA a link to the ADD book.
posted by tully_monster at 5:21 AM on March 14, 2013


You are living my life and my kids' lives.

Things that have worked (my child and I are only a couple years younger than you guys, and we have ADHD, too):

1. Minigoals. Complete list A (40 min of specific CBT work, finish homework at aftercare) every day, earn a new book in the Animorphs series by the weekend. Thank the gods there are 50+ books and a TV series on youtube.

2. I have two kids, so we do a lot of head to head competition. I have a spreadsheet that generates math tests, so they do timed drills and get kudos for finishing more than sibling getting right answers, writing numbers forwards (they both have that issue). I also have the kid grade his younger sibling's work, which reinforces his learning. Sometimes I"ll let kid grade his own quiz using a calculator (also demonstrates why we dont' let them use calculators). Also works for chores, etc.

3. Not so mini goals - Complete list B (write down all class assignments, hand in all work) for a month, get next "prize" - in this case, permission to buy Minecraft for the PC.

4. Overall encouragement and friendly family competition. The kids are using Typing Tournament to learn to type, and get high fives for their improvements. In some of the key specific drills, they are starting to beat me (and I have a real-life WPM of 90+ ... those sad adsf fads dads quizzes KILL me).

5. Flexibility. When kiddo gets tired at the end of the day and is starting to frazzle on work, he goes to bed with a shortened reading time, and a promise to get up early (I get them up, but they get up without grumbling either "early" or "on time"). That "get up early" time is used for a fresh tackle of the homework after an early breakfast.

6. Repetition and task assessment . While the List A and List B stuff is repetition in some ways, one of his weaknesses is long form essay. I had him work with me to make up a "map" that breaks down the class hour for the essay into 10 minute chunks, and what tasks to complete in each chunk - outline, intro, middle, conclusion, editing. He wrote down that list three times a day from memory until he got it (and kept doing it to reinforce it). Helps keep him on task for essay writing; he writes it down on his 'brainstorm' paper at the start of each essay.

Overall, my/our attitude towards school with the kids is - there are things you have to do and ways you have to do it even if you don't like it. If you work at these (and CBT, and lists we build for tasks to complete), you will find other things easier to do. This is eventually borne out, though it has taken a hard multi-year slog to get to this point. It hardly feels as though any time has passed (and it's been probably only four months) since we argued about math homework. We broke that cycle by me learning a new way to explain math to him (JUMP method that I renamed SMASH MATH) and him finally getting it (though I did have to spend a significant amount of time outstubborning him). We also use the SMASH MATH theory to conquer other problems.

Also, I've got him on a 504 for the adhd; that and working with the teachers help. We all tell him the same things, give him the same goals, work on the same plan. The teachers also helped me with a few of his specific issues, and trained me in being a tool to help him with some of his other issues. Middle school is looming and I have to get these skills built in him ...

But to echo some of the others, emphasize that just because some things were easy and some things are not doesn't mean you are dumb once you get to harder things - it just means that you need to learn how to learn how to do them.
posted by tilde at 6:10 AM on March 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


Ahem, just wanted to say...not everything is ADHD, people.

I read the OP and thought, oh my, his daughter is just like me. Seriously, I was that kid, 25+ years ago. I didn't have ADHD, I was just a bit stubborn and, frankly, lazy; I'd figured out exactly how much I could 'get away with', being pretty academically gifted, and run with it. Most of the schoolwork I did complete was of such high quality that everyone overlooked the fact that a chunk of it never got turned in. Not exactly a good lesson for the future.

"I would sit late into the night in front of a typewriter with a blank sheet of paper (or later, a computer with a blank word-processing document), and when I would finally go to bed, it would still be blank." This isn't typical 'refusing' to write papers, or procrastination.

Sorry, have to disagree. I did this then, and I do it now. It's a terrible, self-destructive form of procrastination but I absolutely do not have ADHD.

I agree with the posters who recommend emphasizing effort and consistency over results. Your daughter needs to learn self-discipline and self-motivation, and you'll do her a huge favour by encouraging that now.
posted by Salamander at 7:39 AM on March 14, 2013


For the record, if she has an anxiety diagnosis, DO NOT try medicating for ADHD without addressing the anxiety first. I was put on Ritalin in high school and it was absolutely awful-- ratcheted my (then-undiagnosed) anxiety up to 11. As an adult, I went on meds for the anxiety, and I now also take Adderall without any adverse effects.

My guess is that she is some combination of anxious/ADHD, although since that's my diagnosis I may be projecting. But she, and you, sound an awful lot like me at that age. CBT will help the anxiety, and don't be afraid of meds-- but stimulants are bad for anxious people on their own.
posted by nonasuch at 8:19 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a 13 y/o stepson that sounds like your daughter in some ways. We are in family therapy and our therapist suggested he might have problems with "executive function". I picked up Smart but Scattered Teens from Amazon, and what they describe sounds dead-on. It not only explains the issue, but it also gives you practical suggestions to help your child improve.
posted by elmay at 9:58 AM on March 14, 2013


Thanks for all the response! As a non-MetaFilter-user, my wife was amazed by the level of thought that you put into it (and touched by my honest vulnerability). I had assumed that she recognized the ADD symptoms, but she hadn't. She's usually a lot better than me at "reading" people, but she also hadn't recognized my daughter's desire to stay in bed all day as a possible symptom of depression until I pointed it out. I guess it takes one to know one.
I'll address some things, but if I don't quote you, it doesn't mean that I don't value your input, I'm just trying to keep this to a reasonable length.

I think I would have been similar to this except for what my dad did: I got paid for A's.

We've tried things like that, but like my parents, my wife and I have a hard time following through with a plan after we've announced it, whether it's rewards, punishments, allowances...

It sounds like you lack ambition and there was never a reason to try at anything because you never had a goal. Does your daughter have one? What does she want to be when she grows up?

Correct, I didn't (and don't) have any goals, and neither does she. I asked her this morning what she wanted to do when she grows up, and the first thing that came to mind was home daycare (which is what her best friend's mom does). I told her that it was unlikely to pay enough without a working partner, so her next idea was to own a restaurant with her sister. (So far, she doesn't picture herself with a romantic partner, and her sister is clear about wanting to become a chef.)

This is classic ADHD behavior. It is particularly insidious in highly intelligent people because they have the intelligence to be able to get by. They can pass tests and "show potential", and because of that, never really had to learn to develop study skills. They can do zero homework and crappy last minute papers, because they will break the curve on the test and average out to a C. Whereas someone who doesn't have quite as much natural talent will have been failing by 2nd grade and ADHD will get diagnosed.
One of the less talked about symptoms of ADHD is hyper focus. Reading 300 pages a night, for example. Being "stuck" on a television program or video game.


Yep, I figured out that in some classes, if the final grade was 50/50 tests and homework, I could just ace every test and pass the class without turning in any homework.
I know all about the hyperfocus symptom. In my post-high-school limbo, I would sometimes play Civilization for eight hours without eating or peeing. I still sometimes stay up playing a game until four in the morning, but not as much as I used to. (I did spend almost three hours constructing this response.)

I wonder if perfectionism is perhaps playing a role here? Obviously I don't mean perfectionism as it's often used - putting in epic efforts to make an outcome perfect - I mean a sort of paralysis that comes from knowing that what you produce will not be perfect, which makes it impossible to start.

Yes, I think that some of it is “analysis paralysis”. Ironically, my wife suffers from the other kind of perfectionism. Writing reports is a large part of her job, and although she doesn't have trouble motivating herself to work on them, she still falls behind, because it's hard to allow herself to “do C work”.

Another perspective: for people with organization issues, the process of planning something, even coming up with a thing to be planned for, is often insurmountable.
Another thing that popped into my mind, and this might be key: ask her to think about what she is thinking about when she fails to write down her assignments in her planner.


Yes, our family has organization issues. The room I'm sitting in right now used to be almost “Hoarders”-worthy, until my wife and girls stacked the junk more densely and put a couch in front of it. It's a common pattern for us to take a Rubbermaid bin full of stuff on a trip, and never unpack it when we get home. To prepare for our Halloween party, we hid a bunch of clutter under our dining room table. It's still there.
She claims that she doesn't have time to write her assignments in her planner in class.

My wife isn't willing to let her fail, because she wants her to go to her alma mater, Scripps.

One, this is a huge thing to put on the shoulders of a twelve year old. I really, sincerely hope that your wife hasn't shared this tidbit with your daughter, because if I were a teen with OCD/Anxiety, you know what would make me miserable? Knowing that my mother wanted and expected me to do Big Deal To Her Thing.


Several of you have mentioned this... I probably shouldn't have used the word “because” there. (I tend to over-combine sentences; it sometimes results in overuse of parentheses and semicolons.) My wife assumes that she'll go to Scripps, and doesn't treat that as a secret, but she doesn't bring it up in relation to schoolwork. The real reason she's unwilling to let her fail is simply because she doesn't want her to fail.

And don't be scared of drugs. I have ADHD fully (as in, with hyperactivity) and I avoided drugs until I was 17 years old. Going on medication changed my life. In fact, I rank it above Accutane on "things I did that changed my life forever."

I'm not afraid of drugs—I'm on an antidepressant, but I don't think it works for me. Our GP prescribed it, and when I told him I didn't think it was working, he increased the dosage, saying that because I didn't think it was working, that's how he could tell it was working. O_o He claimed that if it really wasn't working, I would be so annoyed by the side effects that I would have stopped taking it. (My wife and I think that he underestimates my stubbornness.)

Also, I think you need to look into your own attitudes, possibly with the help of a counselor. Your question here reveals a low self-esteem. Frankly it sounds like you've written yourself off. "wait for him to die"?! WTF kind of thinking is that, you're 40 for God's sake, not 89. If you think your daughter and family setting is unaffected by this destructive, sad kind of thinking, you are very mistaken. You owe it to your daughter and wife to get on this, if not yourself.

I don't want to sound again like I'm criticizing my wife, but about a month ago, I asked her to help arrange therapy for me, because I decided that I can't “walk to the hospital to get my broken leg fixed”. We've talked about it a little since then, but nothing tangible has happened yet. When I was young, I didn't think that I'd live past thirty--"live fast, die young", I thought... except I never got around to the “live fast” part.

It got to the point I would come home crying after school, I was so bored, but not to the point where I stopped doing what was required. This was eventually resolved by skipping a grade, and when it started showing up again, seeking out still more challenging classes.

Funny you should mention skipping a grade, because I did that myself, going directly from kindergarten to second grade. I believe that it was a bad decision for me, for social reasons: it meant that I was always the youngest and usually the smallest in the class, plus I didn't know how to play the games that the other kids had all learned together in first grade.

For a certain kind of creative, intelligent person, school feels like prison.

Repeated for the truth. I was acutely aware of just how much of a waste of my time it was. But I haven't wasted my life once I left - I had passions and I followed them.
Help your daughter cultivate love for something and help her find meaning where she can.


We've always tried to encourage her maturity and independence. In fact, I've exposed her to things that probably would appall many parents (probably things that I found here on MetaFilter).

But I wanted to say especially that your life is not over. You can, for example, get a college degree!

One of the things that I typed out, but deleted before posting, because it wasn't relevant enough to my daughter's situation, was that if I had gone to college, it might have done more harm than good. I may have just ended up paying to fail classes instead of doing it for free.
posted by Tool of the Conspiracy at 12:51 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


nb: I am very very disorganized, though there is some disagreement on my qualification for "Hoarders" (I'm sure I could google it but I have a feeling it would be depressing). All this organization and figuring it out has been hard for me, but the successes we are slowly seeing based on it have been worth me breaking my brain over to force myself to be 'that' organized.
posted by tilde at 6:23 AM on March 15, 2013


Your followup makes me think that you and your wife both have problems with organization, motivation, and follow-through; that, to me, would pretty much explain the problems your child is having with organization, motivation, and follow-through.

As parents, you ABSOLUTELY cannot fix your child's problem if you cannot implement and follow through on a plan. Lack of organization and follow-through is not a "one conversation" fix; it's something that's going to require, well, organization and follow-through from both you and your wife.

I would really, really, really recommend family therapy for all three of you. Your daughter needs to be held to her responsibilities by you and your wife, and apparently you and your wife need to be held to your responsibilities by someone else.

I'm not at all saying you're bad parents -- you sound caring and empathetic and warm and encouraging -- but you're all missing some vital skills here, and I think it will help the entire family if everyone finds a teacher (i.e., therapist) for those skills.
posted by jaguar at 9:04 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Seconding Jaguar. I wasn't able to begin dealing with my disorganization and procrastination until I was out of the family home. It's really difficult to overcome those obstacles as a child when you aren't really fully aware there are other ways to cope outside of what you see everyday.

The fact that you are aware of your own difficulties is an awesome first step. Friends who went through competent family therapy still speak warmly of the skills they learned there.
posted by Dynex at 8:15 PM on March 15, 2013


One of the things that I typed out, but deleted before posting, because it wasn't relevant enough to my daughter's situation, was that if I had gone to college, it might have done more harm than good. I may have just ended up paying to fail classes instead of doing it for free.

Sorry I didn't see this when you originally posted it, TotC. Had you gone to college before, yes, it's likely you would have failed, because you didn't know then what might be holding you back or how to cope with it. Now you have a better chance of acquiring the tools and resources to identify specific weaknesses and learn how to compensate for if not overcome them.

I think my father had a lot of concentration and organizational issues and was on the verge of flunking out of college when the Vietnam War came along. Instead of taking a student deferment, he decided to enlist, and he ended up going to Officer Candidate School. My father, for all his character weaknesses and moral failings, is actually a pretty intelligent man, and he turned out to be a good soldier and a capable officer, probably because he tended to flourish in a structured environment. My mother thinks he probably did (and does) suffer from ADHD--whether or not that is actually true, he certainly fits the profile.

Anyways, a combination of maturity and a newly-acquired sense of discipline helped him finish college after his discharge. I'm not saying that the solution to your problem is to drop everything and go join the Army. However, my father's experience suggests that these things can be learned, and many schools, especially community colleges, have resources available to help students with attention disorders, returning adult students, and students with learning disabilities.

Besides, when I taught college English, some of my favorite classes were night seminars in which most of my students were adults with day jobs. They were interesting people and had plenty of life experience to draw on for their writing assignments, and they possessed a perspective that traditional college-age students lacked, no matter how bright and capable these students might otherwise be. I am strongly of the opinion that a lot of high school graduates need at least a few years in the real world to prepare them for college. Maybe you were one of those young adults.

If going back to school genuinely holds no interest for you, so be it. However, if it's something you regret and think would have enriched your life--or could enrich it now and further your career prospects--your adult self might be much better prepared for it than your teenage self could ever have been.
posted by tully_monster at 2:28 PM on April 2, 2013


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