What should I do about a stubborn 13 year old who doesn't care about doing well in school?
September 4, 2012 1:44 PM   Subscribe

What should I do about a stubborn 13 year old who doesn't care about doing well in school?

I'm torn about what to do with my 13 year old daughter who doesn't seem to care one bit about doing well in school. She is very fortunate to go to an excellent charter middle school that has a long waiting list of kids and parents who would give anything to get into this school. She barely passed 7th grade last year while I was trying to stay off her back. She says she doesn't like being nagged, but I have to remind her about assignments/tests that are coming up because she won't write things in her planner, doesn't bother to study for tests, gets zeros for not turning in homework or following instructions, etc.

Now that she is in 8th grade, I told her I would stay off her back if she was getting As and Bs. I thought that might motivate her to do well but she's already down to Cs and Ds in the first two weeks of school.

So as I see it there are two options: I can quit helping her and let her fail (I seriously believe she wouldn't care one bit about failing 8th grade, BTW). Or, I can "sit" on her, make her do what she needs to do whether she likes it or not and she can thank me later? I'm seriously considering quiting my job so I can focus on this kid and get her back on track in school. She has three siblings who are all honors students. I fully appreciate her wanting to be different, after all she is a different person than her siblings. But I expect all of them to do well in school and she's just not having it.

I'd be curious to hear from people who have kids who have been in this situation and what approach they took that did or did not work.
posted by anonymous to Education (50 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Does she regularly lose her textbooks? Regularly leave things at school by accident? Can't hang onto jackets/hats/gloves/etc.? The sort of forgetfulness you describe -- not writing things down, not remembering tests, not doing homework, not following directions -- are practically a checklist of how an ADHD-afflicted kid acts in school.
posted by griphus at 1:49 PM on September 4, 2012 [20 favorites]

What would she rather be doing? What matters to her? Your options are not either nag her or let her fail, your options include helping her figure out what makes her tick, what gives her purpose.

What other options are available in your area? Religious and/or granola-crunchy private schools? Arts-focused schools? Vocational curricula?

You need to change your focus from making a 13-year-old girl reach this year's academic standards, to helping her become the well-balanced adult she's going to be for the next seven decades.
posted by headnsouth at 1:50 PM on September 4, 2012 [19 favorites]

It sounds like she could have executive function issues. An appropriate assessment might be in order.
posted by Michele in California at 1:50 PM on September 4, 2012

#1) Have you had her tested for learning disabilities and/or ADHD?
#2) Has she been in counselling? Do you know why she doesn't care about school? Does it feel worthless? Is she a perfectionist? Can you get her into more applied types of programs, even afterschool ones? Could she be depressed? Bipolar? Low on D or thyroid issues? Does she care about other things in her life? What are they?
#3) Have you involved her in setting up a plan to get through school? What does she say, other than to quit nagging her?

This is so not about passing a grade. There's something else going on and it's your job to figure out what it is. Quitting your job so you can sit on her will backfire big time, guaranteed.
posted by barnone at 1:51 PM on September 4, 2012 [18 favorites]

Sit with her. If you want this to be important to her, then you want her to see that this is important to you. Set aside a specific time every day to do homework with her, and fulfill that commitment to her, so that she can model your behavior.

It may be rocky going at first, because it is a new routine, but over time you'll both settle into it.

In the meantime, you already know that taking a hands-off approach won't work, and neither will bribing, because ultimately those things say "I'm telling you this is important, but it isn't important enough for me to be involved directly." Far better to take on the commitment with her. Plus, you'll be less frustrated.

At the end of the day, you're not showing her "your grades are important" as much as you're showing her "School is your commitment, and you are my commitment, so we are going to focus on making sure we are both fulfilling our commitments."
posted by davejay at 1:52 PM on September 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

What does she want? What does she do instead of homework? How is her social life? Does she ever talk about her aspirations? If she's a bullheaded kid, you need to figure out how to help her see where what she wants and what you want really do intersect, and that only works if you really do understand what she wants. (I am assuming she does not have any ADD-spectrum issues, because of my own personal experience, but that's worth following too.)

I was totally that kid, except I went to a very good public school instead of a charter school. I was contemptuous of homework, didn't study for tests, enjoyed the actual class time well enough but wasn't at all invested in grades as a reward, and ultimately didn't go to college because, I argued, it would be a waste of everyone's time and money. (It totally would have, and by now - I'm 31 - even my mother agrees with me.)

But I got really good at what I was interested in - computers and online interaction - and have had a very successful career out of it. And I did that *despite* my excellent schooling, not because of it. The way schools are set up in the US now, they are often not really helpful for anything but keeping kids off the streets until they turn 18, and I personally think it's detrimental to focus on them as ends in themselves rather than the child's development. Find out what positives there are in her life, and enhance those, and you'll have a happier, better-adjusted kid.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:53 PM on September 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

What are her teacher's take on the situation? Do they think there is possibly another problem (like ADHD as Griphus suggested), problems with kids at school, problems at home? Any other contributing factor? Or is the work just too hard? Maybe a meeting needs to be held about if she is capable of completing the work at that level.

But if it's just behavioral: what consequences does she have besides nagging? Does she lose her ipod/tv/computer privilages if she fails a test, for example? Does she get monetary rewards for good grades? Sometimes rewards work better than consequences. Say, if you get at least a B on your math test, you get to go with friends to a movie...or something like that.
posted by Eicats at 1:53 PM on September 4, 2012

Have you had her tested for learning disabilities and/or ADHD?

Do you have the option/finances to send her to a different school? FWIW, your daughter sounds exactly like me when I was in school. I did nothing in school, almost flunked out and didn't graduate with my class. I hated every minute of it and just couldn't buckle down and do the work. My son, who has pretty much the exact same brain I do, is thriving at a Montessori school. Today was his first day back and he couldn't wait!

This is basically my way of saying that sometimes it's the school, not the kid. Not every school works for every kid and not every kid is capable of adapting at that age. Get your child tested and try out different schools. Work with her to find the right one.
posted by bondcliff at 1:55 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

And I'd recommend getting a family counselor to help you wade through these issues. Someone who can help you ask good questions, wait to hear good answers, and let her know that you want to HELP HER succeed, and that you're listening to what she needs. That's not about admitting defeat (i.e. you're a failure as a parent if you can't do that on your own) -- it's actually a sign of great strength: you're acknowledging that there is an impasse here, you don't want to push her away, and need some outside perspective. To recognize that is a strength, not a weakness.

Ask your pediatrician if they know of a good family counselor, or ask your own doctor if they have any recommendations. Ask friends too -- you can say "a friend needs a recommendation, know anyone?" if you don't want to open up about these issues.
posted by barnone at 1:55 PM on September 4, 2012

The problem you're having is that you're framing this as a negotiation. "I told her I would stay off her back if she was getting As and Bs." OK, then what does "off my back" really mean? Is having you nag more or less onerous than the perceived work required to get As and Bs? If it's less ... then, fuck it. It's C and D city for this girl, who is a rational, thinking human perfectly capable of making this calculation, whether consciously or not.

No, you're not negotiating. You're parenting. There's a difference. The second you find yourself cutting a deal, you lose.

You want As and Bs? You do the work of getting her to get As and Bs. If this means managing her on a hour-to-hour basis, then that's what it means.

"Do your homework."
"I don't wanna."
"If you do your homework, I'll give you a cookie."

"Do your homework."
"I don't wanna."
/entire household routine comes to a screeching halt until homework is done. Husband doesn't get dinner, dog doesn't get walked, TV doesn't get flipped on, brothers and sisters sit and wait ...

Repeat as needed. Do not waver, do not negotiate.

Trust me, a few of the "planet stands still on its axis" moments will reset the tone of the discussion.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:58 PM on September 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

I used to be a teacher and I came to say what griphus said. Have you had her evaluated? That might go a LONG way towards understanding what's going on.

There may be other issues at school, how's her social life? Does she feel secure at school, good friends, feeling accepted, that kind of stuff.

Once you've ruled out any cognitave things, you need to decide if a more structured environment might be in order.

Middle School is a rough time for kids. Their brains are forming at a weird pace, they have hormones that make them crazy, if you have other kids, I'm sure you know this. Thankfully, I was able to do fuck-all in Middle School with few reprecussions.

Some kids need someone sitting on them, giving them a time table, etc.

Some things you can try, right now today.

1. Understand what her homework is and have her sit until she does it. No computer, no phone, no TV, no nothing until that homework is done.

2. Call her teachers/Assistant Principal and find out how she's doing in class. Does she participate? Does she even show up?

3. Have each teacher check in with you weekly with a progress report. (I provided these to ALL of my students. It shouldn't be any kind of big deal.)

4. Have strict cause and effect relationships. If homework is done, kid can play a game for 30 minutes. If it's not. Then kid can sit in room and stare at wall (or work on homework until it IS done.)

I hate to say it, but your kids schooling is your 2nd Job. Quiz her on her test questions. Read her assignments and discuss them with her. If you get as involved as you want her to be, you may see some improvement. She has to feel invested, and if you don't seem to care, then why should she?

But really, before getting all draconian, you MUST have her evaluated ASAP.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:59 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Another factor that was pretty major for me was that of control. As a 13-year-old girl, I felt like I had very, very little control over my life. I pretty much had to do what my parents wanted me to do, including going to school, going to socially-mandated parties, wearing what they bought me, etc. Not that they were particularly controlling - far from it. But lack of control is part of the defining feature set of that age.

So what I could control was whether or not I turned in homework, or studied for tests, or whatever. There was no point to doing well - that was what everyone wanted me to do. But by God I could slack and nobody could stop me. It was very much one of the few ways I could feel in control of my own life. Had my parents clamped down even harder, it just would have made it that much worse.

It's not a great coping mechanism, I admit, but hey, it beats anorexia.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:01 PM on September 4, 2012 [13 favorites]

From a user who wants to remain anon:
We had a very similar situation with my little brother around that age.

I was and always had been a top-of-the-class honors student, and no one in my family could figure out why my younger brother (who you can tell when talking to him is plenty bright) didn't care at ALL about schoolwork. He would do OK if someone actually sat with him and forced him to focus on his work, but when left to his own devices he was a complete wreck. Stubborn is exactly the word I would use to describe him.

It wasn't until years later (as an adult) that he confided to me that he had been sneaking out most nights (starting when he was about 12) to drink and smoke pot with a buddy of his who lived down the street. If you had asked me back then if it was even possible that he could have snuck out of the house, I would have sworn up and down that there was no way he could have done it without me knowing. But apparently he did.

I'm not saying your kid is involved in drugs, and I would absolutely NOT suggest that you accuse her of doing anything like that without a shred of proof. But I think if my parents had taken an interest in what was going on in my brother's life outside of school they would have been in a better position to see that something wasn't quite right.

So, talk to her. Make sure you get to know her friends really well. Show her that you're proud of her for good choices she makes, period, not just when they're tied to her grades. If my experience has taught me anything, it's that bad grades very rarely are 100% about school.
posted by jessamyn at 2:10 PM on September 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Nthing having her tested for ADHD, exploring the possibility that she is being bullied behind the scenes, and also looking at possible issues of depression or anxiety. This sounds dramatic enough that I wouldn't bring the hammer down until you know for certain that there are not other issues causing her secret distress.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 2:17 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

It sounds to me she's got a bad case of the teenagery.

My suggestion: Does she have a computer with unfiltered internet access? A video game? A cellphone? TV? An IPod? Time with her friends? Inform her, in absolutely unmistakable terms, that those are privileges restricted to those who are willing to work for them, and if her grades do not dramatically improve she will no longer be allowed those privileges. Then, if she doesn't get her act together on her own, follow through. I would recommend taking them away incrementally, not all at once. If in the unfortunate case that you have to bring the hammer down and take away privileges, accept no bargaining, no excuses, no BS. She will work, or she will lose her privileges, full stop. You're going to have to be a hardass, sorry.

If that doesn't work, then yeah, there are probably medical issues at work as suggested upthread. But it just sounds like teenage stubbornness/laziness is the more likely cause here.
posted by deadmessenger at 2:20 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Previously. Some of the answers are very good, especially this one, which points out that sometimes kids are just their own person.
posted by Melismata at 2:30 PM on September 4, 2012

Sounds like me at that age.

That age is the first time a kid has to really be organized to do well in school. If you're not really on top of things, your grades slip, and that's that.

I could not get my shit together. Parents freaked out about the grades dropping, convinced themselves something terrible was going on (drugs, sexual abuse, "bad influences," whatever). I was dragged to many psychologists who asked me things like "What's going on? Why do you think you're here?" to which I responded, truthfully, "I don't know," and were more than happy to drag out that exact exchange for years while giving me one ineffective antidepressant after another.

Turns out, it was plain old ADHD: Inattentive, and considering its symptoms were exactly what set all of that off, well, it probably should have been everyone's first guess, before jumping headfirst into an after school special.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:37 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Very intelligent children have ADD or ADD like symptoms. My niece is brilliant and I am not saying that because she is my niece. She simply is. She already knows what you are about to teach her before you barely begin the lesson. My sister said she has diagnosed ADD.

Me, I was mediocre in the smarts and didn't like being told what to do. Secretly, I wanted to do better than anyone else. I just had a problem with authority. I never planned to do anything and handed everything at the last minute. I never studied. I didn't have to. I was an honor student with scores in the high 80s to 90s.

My parents never nagged or sat with me. They didn't make a thing of whether I did well in school. They simply said I can do as I wish. Just don't do anything embarrassing. Shame is the worst thing ever. I never wanted to be ashamed of what I did so that made me hand in my work and score well enough not to be embarrassing.

So, try both things. See what happens. The worst thing is that she has ADD and you put her on medication. Hopefully she does not have ADD and will not want to do anything she will feel ashamed of. Tell her she isn't going to school for you, that you are already grown up and doing what you want to do. Tell her to choose her future. She's a big girl now and she should make some big girl decisions.
posted by Yellow at 2:45 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nothing like a bullshit summer job to motivate me. Being a fuckup sounded all 'the fonz' and whatnot until I spent 3 months washing dishes at the old folks home. Maybe this is not as PC as everyone else recommending to properly medicate your kid, but frankly I think thats a horrifying reflection of society.

Also: This might be short on specifics but the guy makes a lot of excellent points.
posted by H. Roark at 2:53 PM on September 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

If she's smart, then she's bored with school.

My daughter did this. (She's brilliant.) She basically said "fuck it, there is no point to this" and flunked out. It was just too boring. I even spelled out a future of shit jobs and crappy apartments to her and she just didn't care.

Once my ex found a program for her (actually sponsored by the Agricultural office in rural Georgia where they lived) where she could learn at her own pace and take the necessary testing to graduate, she hammered through a couple of grades in a couple of months, then aced her US Navy entrance evaluation and was chosen to be a Sonar Tech.... but that's another story.

What do you do? If you can, find a school or program that will let her learn at her own pace. This might take money (private schooling / tutoring / homeschooling), or some interventions at the school or board level.

Which is not to say don't get her tested if a disability seems to be indicated. But mainly, if she's bored, give her goals she can attain. Seeing "four years of non-optional totally fucking boring school" in front of you is just crushing to a kid. (It was to me. I have no idea how I made it through.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:59 PM on September 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Why I Flunked Out of High School by Elsie

Smart and bored
Undiagnosed ADHD
Severe bullying
Parental disinterest
The idea that I couldn't afford to go to college so why bother?
posted by elsietheeel at 3:18 PM on September 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

You might want to find out why she doesn't care. I REALLY REALLY "didn't care" when i was in school, but it turned out (and i don't think i could have recognized this or articulated it at the time), it was because i was socially miserable. And i hated going to school as a result. And i didn't give a crap about doing well at this thing that i hated. (Plus, it's hard to see why "doing well" matters when you're in 8th grade and there's no evidence around you that it does.) Doing terribly in school is a miserable experience, and i think it just reinforced in my mind that i hated my schoool. The charter school she's in might seem awesome to a parent, but if she's not happy in her day-to-day there, then the best school in the world isn't going to turn her around.

Kids have very very very little control over their lives, and 8th grade is around the time when this starts to chafe. "Not caring about school" can also be a form of rebellion, and it certainly was for me. It was one of the only ways i could rebel, especially as a kid who wasn't a 'bad kid'.

I didn't turn it around until my last year of high school, when i begged my parents to send me to a different school (it was a private school, but that's not really the point), and they did.

Try and give your kid some control over her schooling, and i'll bet you'll see an improvement. If there's an opportunity to switch to a different school where your daughter is happier, and where she is making the choice to be there, then take that opportunity. Sit down with your kid and ask her what could change to make her like school more. (Don't focus on her doing better, because that's not something she cares about right now. Focus on what she wants to focus on.) Is it about being cooler (wearing different clothes? being more fit?) Getting to go to school by public transport instead of being driven? Switching to a different school? A different class? Getting a tutor so its not so embarrasing when she gets called on? Figure out what will make her HAPPIER in school, and gives her some feeling of control over her life, and i'd bet that you'll have a kid who does better in school.
posted by Kololo at 3:49 PM on September 4, 2012

This is what we used with our kids.

1. Take the time to find out how you can know about the assignments. Toward the tail end of my kids' high school years the schools were implementing online processes that had assignments listed (our school district used something called School Loop). If there isn't already a system in place, I bet the teachers can help you by emailing information to you.

2. Let your child know that your expectations are that she will be responsible for completing all her assignments on time - including reading, studying for tests, etc. Negotiate a reasonable time when she will have all her work completed by and placed in her backpack. Grades don't need to be part of the expectation, but being responsible for completing the assignments should be.

3. When she's finished, tell her it is her responsibility to come to you with her backpack and run through the days assignments and physically show you the work for each assignment - pull the paper out, show you, and put it back so it's ready to turn in. (e.g. show me your English, show me your Math, etc). If it's a reading assignment ask for a quick summary - look at the book, is it close?

4. Give her a good place to get her work done, limit television and computer access until the work is done, sit there with her if that helps. I know my daughters bucked against my wife more than they did me, so I played more of this role during the teen years.

5. Give a little on your end as well - that book report might not be her best work, but that's got to be her choice and you might need to let that go.

6. Talk to her about what her future interests are and help guide her interests and talk to her about education is going to help get her there. Stress hard work over being smart as the key to success. When she is getting things done, find ways to praise and reward her.

Good luck and stay patient.
posted by Edward L at 3:57 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I came on here to say the same as the anonymous poster.is there any possibility whatsoever that pot could be involved? That screws with your motivation big time. It is also possible she fears not living up to the achievements of her older siblings.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:58 PM on September 4, 2012

Another voice backing up Anonymous - my little brother did the same thing. He started sneaking out when he was about 12 and since my mom didn't push him at all or even monitor his behavior, he did it all the way through high school as well. Needless to say he's not really rocking life right now. I don't have kids, so take this for what it's worth, but I think it's time for some real consequences. Get her drug tested, get her mentally tested, take away all privileges until she at least TRIES to care. If she doesn't care about her performance at school, find something she DOES care about and make that contingent on her pulling her grades up. And - talk to the teacher!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:04 PM on September 4, 2012

I failed 8th grade. Not because I didn't have the brains but because I was preoccupied with boys, my low self-esteem, probably undiagnosed depression, family problems (didn't think about them too much but they were there and they affected me greatly). Your daughter is at a difficult age. She may be internalizing things. She might be overwhelmed. She might have depression/ADD/low self-esteem/poor sleep habits/myriad of things. What do you think?

I think what would have worked for me was actual involvement from a parent. Some interest. My parents were tired and absorbed in their own problems at this age and they rarely asked me how I was doing. Rarely asked me what was going on in my life and really didn't know my troubles/concerns/likes or dislikes. What does your child like to do? What are her hopes and dreams? What kind of fun could you be having together just the two of you, and as a family. My parents provided clothing, food, shelter, and ensured I was in school and wanted me to get good grades but wanting wasn't good enough.

My parents always stressed education but their tactic was to nag and put me on restriction for nine weeks. Nine weeks was the grading period. Next nine weeks I got bad grades again. This did nothing to motivate me to do homework or get serious. I needed something that I wasn't giving. Or, I needed something else. I don't blame them. My sister was fine and was self-motivated. I was more sensitive. I was oldest kid. Probably had some mild to moderate ADD and when I was 13-14 I was a mess. I was immature. I would apply makeup in science class and do other stupid stuff. I was not focused. I was so confused/directionless/pre-occupied. Some interest and help such as: "Can I help you organize your binders/backpack, etc." "Do you need supplies?" "What is your favorite class? "Who is your favorite teacher?" Least favorite? "What can I do to help you succeed?"

Tell her your personal regrets about school.

A routine. Eat dinner together as many nights as possible. Before or after dinner there is a routine of doing homework. She can do it at kitchen table while you supervise until she can be trusted to do it on her own.

I would email her teachers. Set up conferences with teachers. Go to Open House. Encourage her to join clubs/after-school tutoring if they offer it/after-school activities.

Hire a tutor. Go two or three times per week after school if she refuses to do homework at home. Sometimes a person besides a parent can oversee homework/help with school work.

What is your child doing to improve her self-esteem? What are you doing to let her know that she is wonderful? Is she involved in any sports? If not sports, how about teen bowling league, art classes, dance classes, figure skating, babysitting classes, volunteer work, etc. Activities where she is moving her body/getting exercise might help if she has poor body image/mild depression. Are you keeping lines of communication open?

Who is she hanging out with? How about her friends? Are they unmotivated as well? I am not suggesting to pick her friends but friends offer clues. Are her friends "troubled"? If they are, your daughter may be "troubled" as well. Troubled people attract troubled people. I am not labeling your child. This age is a difficult age and every kid this age will have challenges.

Therapy. I would set up weekly counseling where she can go alone and talk to a therapist.

What motivates her? Money? Pay for grades. People do it. Money does not motivate a lot of kids If money doesn't work, find something that does. I would use this as last resort. A job well done is the best reward. Praise her efforts. Praise her hard work. Notice things. Compliment her. Tell her some things you admire about her.

Talk with her. Take her out to dinner once a week or dinner/movies on weekend and really listen and talk without nagging. Let her know how you felt as a teenager. Let her know your failures and fears. It's good for our kids to see that we are not perfect and that we mess up and don't know everything.

My parents let me fail. I don't think they knew I was in danger of failing and if they did, they let it happen. I don't blame them. Maybe they thought that was what I needed. Consequences. I don't always get a pass. I was very upset when I rode my bike down to the school and saw "retained" on my report card. I cried. I was embarrassed. Humiliated. Embarrassed when I went back to school the next year and had to repeat. I got over it and did better. I matured a bit. I encountered some problems again in 10th grade and was in 10R and did summer school almost every year. Not because I was not capable but because I was immature, unmotivated, clueless about life really worked, and had parents who didn't graduate from high-school but were hard workers, smart.

I am all over the place here, but my main message is to get super involved and let her know you aren't going to allow her to fail under your watch. Cultivate your relationship. Show her she is special. She is worth it. She is capable. You believe in her.
posted by Fairchild at 4:16 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

davejay said this above, but I'd like to emphasize a key word here: Sit with her. Not, as you say, on her.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 4:16 PM on September 4, 2012

I teach. Other responders' suggestions to have her evaluated for ADHD are well-taken and what I'm writing is stuff to consider in addition to that, not in place of it.

One of the problems I see with capable students who underachieve is rebellion against the idea, either real or imagined, that good performance in school = lovability. If a student's parents are tying that student's self-esteem to how well they do in school, a student will sometimes underperform as a way of rebelling against this (although I don't know that the students themselves would recognize that this is what's going on). So you should have a good look how at your relationship with your daughter and see if she's likely to see it as being defined primarily by this conflict you're having with her, and make sure that there are other things there in the form of quality time together and messages of unconditional love, because if there are not, she's likely to be distrustful of what you tell her is in her best interest. Are there good things in her life? Things that both of you recognize as being good for her? Figure out what she's not getting that the control she might be getting here might be a replacement for.

Also, I think a lot about this quote from Sun Tzu's The Art of War when it comes to working with kids:

"Therefore, the best warfare strategy is to attack the enemy's plans, next is to attack alliances, next is to attack the army, and the worst is to attack a walled city."

When there's talk of "sitting" on her and quitting your job, that strikes me as being walled-cities territory, though it does show a lot of dedication on your part. A better solution might be to stack the deck so that the stuff she's doing isn't an attractive option for her.

Maybe you could ask her to come up with a plan that she could commit to for studying, seeking help, and allowing you to monitor, and what she thinks should be done if she doesn't get good results or if she doesn't stick with the plan, and how the plan might be adjusted and under what circumstances, and what constructive feedback sounds like to her.

Basically, a process that looks to you like it will work, and you punish and reward based on how well she follows the process, and deal with unsatisfying results by fixing the process rather than by punishment.
posted by alphanerd at 4:25 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

A lot of people are saying to spend more time with her, cultivate your relationship, etc. I think it really depends and this might not necessarily be the best approach. When I was her age, I hated spending time with my parents. My parents asked me about school stuff and generally I give mono-syllable replies and just wished they would stay away and leave me alone.

It sounds to me like she doesn't like the pressure and expectations of the honor student siblings, so she is carving out her own rebellious path. Make sure you show her that is loved outside of of the context of grades/school.
posted by seesom at 4:35 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

You should figure out why she doesn't care, and address that.

Does she not care because it bores her? Because her peers make her miserable? Because her teachers care more about compliance than learning (I went to several "excellent charter" schools - Don't think that makes the humans in charge any less typically human)? Because she views her current situation as eternal and thus sees no reason to do more than the bare minimum to get by (don't take acknowledging a future beyond highschool as the same as believing it)? Because she (along with all her classmates) has hormones making her an obnoxious little brat who would argue the color of the sky depending on her mood? Because every day she needs to wake up waaaay too early to go somewhere she'd rather not go? Because rote matters more than curiosity or interest?

If I had a kid who told me s/he didn't care about school, I'd have a damned hard time arguing why s/he should.

US K-12 schools (public and private), quite simply, suck. They may (largely by accident) manage to impart a basic level of education, but for both the "inmates" and "guards", they count as little more than a daily youth detention center where everyone does their damnedest to make everyone else as miserable as possible.

If it helps, it did make a difference to me, anyway, that my parents constantly reassured me that college worked nothing at all like what came before it, that I could pick what I wanted to study (I didn't hate learning, I hated school), that I would have peers more interested in their studies than in making everyone else miserable, that professors didn't give a damn if you did the busy-work or not as long as you passed the tests, etc. Of course, in hindsight I know they glossed a lot of that over, but the most important parts held true, in that you can get out of a college education what you put into it.

Of course, it didn't make enough difference that I started caring or doing homework or anything crazy like that, but I at least stopped deliberately drawing monkeys on my tests (hey, I lost interest early - I can remember feeling less than impressed with Kindergarten, and by 2nd grade, I had completely tuned out). But it did give me a glimmer of distant hope that helped me make it through each day.
posted by pla at 4:40 PM on September 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I don't think anyone's really focused on this: She has three siblings who are all honors students. Wow, pressure. She might not be as book smart as they are. She might never be an honor student. Maybe she could easily be a B student, but she thinks failing spectacularly is much better than "almost as good as". In fact, she might actually be just as smart as they are (or more) but has low self esteem and doesn't realize how smart she is.

Just another possibility, or possible contributing factor. (Or maybe not.)
posted by Glinn at 5:16 PM on September 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

This was me to a T, in middle school. Including the nearly failing 7th Grade and getting held back.

What my parents decided I needed was constant screaming fights and punishments.

What it turned out that I needed instead was Ritalin - because, sure enough, I have ADHD.
posted by spinifex23 at 5:36 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

What does she think about her school? Are you constantly talking/nagging her about how wonderful the charter school is and how much better the education is and how priviledged she is to get to go, blah blah blah? That may not be helping. If the way the school is structured isn't jiving with her way of functioning (ADHD or not), then she might need a different school. Heck, some people would rather be in a public school (even if they are intellectually ahead of everyone else) so that they could be a leader among their peers instead of being "just another student" at a school where they don't stand out. Failing may be her way of standing out...at least she's getting some attention.

I was pretty smart in school, and self motivated to learn. My sister got frustrated easily, and more time was spent dealing with her schoolwork than mine a lot of the times. Sometimes I just wanted my parents to be involved in my learning because I wanted to share my ideas with someone (and my ideas were often not related to the worksheet or homework or whatever).

See if you can figure out what really gets her excited about life. She may not even know at this age, and that's fine. Give her some opportunity to go explore different things. Then show her how schoolwork/homework connects to what she really loves.

Also, when you sit with her at the table to do homework, let her see you working on some sort of learning. If she is in a standoff and refusing to do the work, instead of just sitting there reading a fashion magazine, read something educational or innovative (Fast Company, Psychology Today, something that might make her think "what is that magazine about?"). That way you can model some lifelong learning, and you might pique her interest in something you had no idea she would be interested in. Maybe bring a little of your work home (something minor that won't cause you stress, but something she can see you doing, even if you can easily get it done at the office). Maybe sit down and work on your To Do lists using a specific approach like David Allen or Franklin Covey...she might get interested in learning how you keep yourself and the family organized.

I'd also decrease the focus on the grade, and increase the focus on the learning new knowledge. You can talk to her about what the grade represents (how do teachers know we mastered the material? Why do they give us grades on homework anyway (to get people to practice the material)? How else can someone demonstrate mastery of the material? How can I evaluate myself to know that I've learned something? People don't get grades in dance class or at sports practice..so how do you evaluate their progress?). I think K-12 education focuses too much on the grades and test scores, and less on answering the question "How do I know that I know what I know?"...maybe she needs to understand the different perspectives.
posted by MultiFaceted at 6:00 PM on September 4, 2012

I'm another one who was just like this. It was a combination of being bored (I wasn't going to do the work if I already knew how to do it, because what was the point?), being bullied, being depressed, and knowing that my parents expected straight As. I felt sure that I couldn't live up to their expectations, and I preferred to not try than to fail.

In my experience, the long-term effects of crappy grades in middle school are basically nil. The long-term effects of feeling like you're failing people or that you're not good enough are devastating, as are the effects of unrecognized depression, being bullied, or having a learning disorder.

Please choose kindness for your daughter.
posted by MeghanC at 6:03 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

My brother was like this. It turned out later that he did have ADD. And also that he was right that his grades didn't matter. He ended up at a super alternative college that didn't care about his grades at all and didn't have any themselves... and then at a super traditional and well known law school from which he graduated at the top of his class.

He and our mother went through years of suffering over his middle school and high school grades. It ended up helping no one and the tragedy of that really sunk in when she died when he was barely into college.

Work with her. Get her help if she needs it. And keep your eyes on what is really important, which is her mental and emotional health, the health of your relationship with her, and her learning and growing as a person rather than as a grade-earner.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:12 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I really wish my parents had nagged me and ridden me hard when I started having problems like this.

Yes, I did get an ADD diagnosis in my late 20s and I do take medication to help me perform at work, and taking those steps could have made a huge dent in my academic performance when I was younger.

But honestly I didn't feel like my parents cared about my grades that much. They'd ask what was wrong if I got a bad grade, they'd tell me I needed to turn homework in if I missed an assignment, sometimes we'd have an intense hours-long conversation, even. But there was no follow through. They were living their lives and did not want to take hours out of those lives to find out what my homework was, to call my teachers if I didn't remember what the assignment was, to make sure the homework was done, or help me with the homework if I couldn't do it on my own.

They figured that I, a 12-year-old girl struggling with social pressures, depression, bullying, the myopia of early adolescence and a developing brain, would totally accept that what they said was important must truly be what mattered, regardless of their actions. They assumed I was capable of figuring out how to stay on top of things on my own, when I was not. They trusted me to prioritize academics when school performance was the least of my worries.

My husband also nearly failed a grade in middle school. His mother started calling his teachers to double check if he said he had no homework. She checked to make sure the homework was done. She learned his test dates and studied with him.

Guess which of us got better at school, and which of us never did?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:51 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Do your homework."
"I don't wanna."
/entire household routine comes to a screeching halt until homework is done. Husband doesn't get dinner, dog doesn't get walked, TV doesn't get flipped on, brothers and sisters sit and wait ...

Repeat as needed. Do not waver, do not negotiate.

Please don't follow this advice. Whatever the problem with your daughter's performance is, adding stress to the situation isn't going to help. Making the rest of the family resent her isn't going to help. Stress is not encouragement! 30 damned years later I am still resentfull of this kind of childish, battle of the wills behavior from my parents.

So as I see it there are two options: I can quit helping her and let her fail (I seriously believe she wouldn't care one bit about failing 8th grade, BTW). Or, I can "sit" on her, make her do what she needs to do whether she likes it or not and she can thank me later? I'm seriously considering quiting my job so I can focus on this kid and get her back on track in school. She has three siblings who are all honors students. I fully appreciate her wanting to be different, after all she is a different person than her siblings. But I expect all of them to do well in school and she's just not having it.

You are framing this as her refusing to do the work. Or as not caring. I'd bet neither of those things are true. Do you know how embarrassing it is to constantly forget things? To have to stand up in class and say you don't have your homework? To want desperately to just fit in and not be the subject of scrutiny and laughter? Consider if that's maybe her experience in school.

Also, letting someone fail isn't always the best option. For someone who wants to succeed but lacks the tools or ability, it is devastating. For someone who is desperately trying to convince the world they don't care, when they really DO care but don't even know how to ask for help the right way, failure just reinforces the terror. There are very few people for whom failure is a motivator. Usually it's just reinforcement of their conceit that school doesn't matter. Failure rarely leads to happiness.
posted by gjc at 7:10 PM on September 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I was like this.

Things were bad at home, which was a huge part of the problem. Remember that bad means different things to different kids, and some will flourish with stimuli that will cause others to break down. (It was scarily-bad at my place, but it doesn't have to be).
Take a good hard look at the home dynamics; is she happy? Getting enough sleep? Enough food? Is there family tension, fighting, or competition? I have read about seemingly successful families with one "bad" member, and how there can be a lot of dysfunction hidden under the surface, that only comes out in one person- sort of a scapegoat for the family's fucked-upness. I'm sorry to be rude, but is she the member of the family who is visibly acting out the entire family's dysfunction?

I was also suffering depression, anxiety, and, I think, ADD as well as having a lot of social functioning issues. So nthing get her tested. If I had started treatment for depression sooner, I might not have dropped out, and certainly wouldn't have lost as many jobs as I have.

I was unhappy in school too, because I didn't fit in. I was a sensitive, odd, perceptive kid and had trouble relating to my peers and respecting my teachers. A lot of things bothered me that I didn't know how to articulate- like, for example, subtle racism and sexism from teachers and encouraged in class. Abuses of power. Systemic injustice that's regarded as normal. Hypocrasy. That kind of thing. When you're a teenager, you have virtually no agency and no language to fight or even describe this kind of shit and it hits some people hard- and some react by disengaging. So alternative schooling might be worth thinking about.

There's also the fact that a lot of the shit they make you do in school just doesn't seem important
It's boring, irrelevant busywork and artificial hoop-jumping. Some kids have a higher tolerance for this than others. It's hard to accept that the hoop-jumping is "important to your future" (even though it is). Sometimes just acknowledging that it's stupid, validating their perceptions, can help.
posted by windykites at 7:17 PM on September 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I failed out of my elite middle school. Everyone kept asking me why I didn't care about doing well and getting good grades. Or accusing me of not caring. In fact, I did care. I cared so deeply that I was afraid to put in any effort and risk failing and collapsing the illusion of my giftedness. I just kept not studying for tests so that I could continue to believe that if I had studied, I would have rocked the tests. My self-esteem was hypothetical and fragile. So I didn't do any homework ever, and I failed everything, and I was accused of not caring by every adult around me.

I can't know if that is anything like what is going on with your daughter. But there is one thing I can tell you with perfect confidence, and I am saying this as a lawyer at a highly prestigious law firm pulling down serious money, and I am saying this as a graduate of a top law school with a number of awards on my transcript: there is life after failing out of middle school. There's even life after nearly failing out of high school and not getting into a single four-year college. There is less at stake during childhood than our society teaches us to believe.
posted by prefpara at 7:29 PM on September 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

"Do your homework."
"I don't wanna."
/entire household routine comes to a screeching halt until homework is done. Husband doesn't get dinner, dog doesn't get walked, TV doesn't get flipped on, brothers and sisters sit and wait ...

I would have sat there until the dog, siblings, parents and myself all starved to death if you'd tried this on me as a 13 year old.
posted by jacalata at 8:21 PM on September 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Listen to prefpara. That was my life.

But it's over now. I'm out of college, in the real world, doing a job that I love.

The next several years as you drag her through middle school and high school will be tough, but you have to remember what she can be after the nightmare of school is over. You must have faith.

There might be very little you can do besides that, but she will turn out successful.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 8:30 PM on September 4, 2012

There's also the fact that a lot of the shit they make you do in school just doesn't seem important
It's boring, irrelevant busywork and artificial hoop-jumping. Some kids have a higher tolerance for this than others. It's hard to accept that the hoop-jumping is "important to your future" (even though it is). Sometimes just acknowledging that it's stupid, validating their perceptions, can help.

This was true for me, as a smart alienated kid.

I got kicked out of two schools for being a brat. My mother, who is a play-by-the-rules person, took it very seriously and worried I was screwing up my whole life. She pleaded with me to work harder, tried to terrorize me with potential future consequences, rewarded me when I behaved and punished me when I didn't. She worried I was on drugs and hanging out with a bad crowd, got me a therapist, spoke extensively with my teachers, etc. None of that worked at all: it just kept me stuck in a loop of wanting to prove how stupid everything was, and how little I cared about it.

What helped was my father and my aunt. They told me I was absolutely right: that my school was run by morons and hypocrites, that I was getting a mediocre education, and that most of what I learned I would never use again. That high school was a kind of obstacle course or hazing ritual on the way to adulthood: you needed to survive (and not close off too many options for yourself) so that you could go on to do much more interesting things in university and beyond.

That totally worked for me. I was never going to buy into a frame that said "this really matters" but I was willing enough to buy into a frame of "pretend this matters, just enough to get through it." And it worked out fine: I went to university, have a career I love, etc.

Your daughter's mileage may vary, but if she's showing signs of being sensitive/odd/perceptive then as windykites says, empathizing with and validating her might be helpful. If you can't do it, maybe there's an adult she's close with and respects, who can?
posted by Susan PG at 9:32 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh wow, sounds like my older son When he was in eighth grade. The harder I pushed, the deeper he dug in. He was screened for ADD and every other disorder. Negative. Here is what I did.

I made a list of each of his classes. Three columns across the top labeled, Completed all Classwork, Completed all Homework, Teachers Signature. I told him it was a get out of jail free card. The rules were simple:

1. I would give him the sheet on Friday mornings. If every class had a yes in both columns, along with the teacher's signature. He had his weekend free.

2. Any No's or teacher didn't sign meant he spend the entire weekend helping me around the house.

3. Lost paper? see rule two

4. Forgot to get teacher's signature? see rule two

5. Holiday weekend? see rule two

6. I would not ask about his grades or homework, ever, not a peep.

As soon as he came home from school on Friday, I greeted him at the door with a smile. "Where's the get out of jail card?" He whipped it out, all yeses and signatures. I would give him a high five and congratulate him.

About week four or five, there was a No on the sheet. All I said was, "What a bummer, that sucks." We were attached at the hip the entire weekend doing chores. The following Friday he called me about two hours before dismissal. He need to stay after school to do a homework assignment he had forgot about. He said the teacher would change her No to a Yes if he did the assignment, but he would only get part credit because it was late. I said, "That is fine, call me when you are ready to be picked up." When I pulled up to the school, he ran to the car waving the paper, the No was crossed out, a Yes was written next to it with the teacher's initials and signature. I congratulated him, admired how he had dodged the bullet. We stopped for smoothies on the way home.

His grades were fine when report cards were issued. Of course they were, he was doing his school work. I didn't have nag for the entire year, never once asked him if he had any homework. He never had a No on the sheet for the rest of the school year. There was no stress between us. Life was good.
posted by JujuB at 10:08 PM on September 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

If the ADHD thing doesn't help then an all girls school and sports. Seriously, she needs to be around peers who motivate her to be like them and she ain't getting it where she is. Lots and lots of girls start to fail around puberty because being around boys is very stressful to them and they can't handle it. Lots of girls do fine too and have nice boyfriends who don't hassle them and I'm sure they'll chime in here but as a pre-teen I had way too much male attention for a girl who looked mature but was still a child. M Mom pulling me and sticking me in an all girls school for 4 years was just the ticket. I actually failed the 6th grade and a big part of that was the hostility and craziness surrounding the boys I was in class with, fighting over me, sending me weird notes, following me home, getting hostile when I wouldn't go out with them. I was 11. And the teachers did nothing. And my parents encouraged me to do sports and being around the older high achieving, confident, female-friendly sports girls was a huge motivator. Those girls were awesome and while we definitely sneaked around and drank and all that stuff like normal teenagers we were really tightknit.

I went back to mixed education when I was 16 and it was totally fine, I had the confidence to deal with it. Plus the boys had grown up some and so had the other girls so I wasn't the only one with boobs.
posted by fshgrl at 10:09 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Very complex question with many aspects you need to consider. But anyway the book called "Drive" about what motivates people might be beneficial to you.
posted by Dansaman at 11:22 PM on September 4, 2012

It occurred to me that I might say a few more things on this subject.

First: despite her lack of pre-test studying, does she consistently do well on tests, or no? I would respond differently to a child who forgets things, doesn't study, doesn't do homework, but aces tests than I would if they did poorly at tests, too.

Second: somewhere during grade school I realized that my excellent school performance was disliked by my peers, so I stopped trying. I was bored anyway, and despite never turning in homework or studying for tests, my grades were good enough to pass because I aced every test. Every time. Teachers made allowances for my lack of homework and class participation because of it; As early as fourth grade my teacher let me sit in the hall and complete all my homework for the entire year in a few hours, so that I could pass the class (as my test scores had been perfect.)

In high school, my grades were often D B F A for the semesters, as only the second and fourth semester grades counted, and one admitted directly that the D and F represented my performance in the class, while the B and A represented my knowledge of the subject via testing. With so many people bending over backwards to pass me, and such an easy time aceing the tests, why try harder?

My father's solution was not to assist or yell or any of that; he just offered me money for good grades. It didn't work, because I didn't care about money. What I really wanted was my parents to focus positive attention on me -- generally, not just regarding schoolwork -- and since school performance got me negative attention at worst and no attention at best, I had another good reason not to try.

I'm not trying to place blame here, but rather to note that teenagers can be myopic and unable to see the future impact of their present actions, so getting with her in the present (ie lets set down and do homework now) will have much more impact than anything future-looking or abstracted, positive or negative.
posted by davejay at 1:09 AM on September 5, 2012

I was like this. Never wrote things in my planner, forgot/lost assignments. I was never "tuned in" at school, constantly felt like I was missing something, was confused, everyone else understood something I didn't etc. Also, lazy was a big part of the problem.

My poor parents tried everything. Counseling, ritalin, dedicated study table at home, grounding me, yelling, paying me for grades. All of these had limited success because you can lead a horse to water but you can't make them not a teenager.

I had other priorities in my life at the time. The only thing mattered was talking to my friends, including online at home once I got home from school. Nowhere else in my life did I feel 'in my element.' Nowhere except talking to my friends did I get that nice "flow" feeling.

Also, no one ever explained to me why my middle school grades mattered. Even when I asked. I figured it out later, and was mad. MIDDLE SCHOOL GRADES DON'T MATTER. Why were my parents freaking out all the time? They said, "You need to build skills you'll use for the rest of your life." I read well, wasn't good at math but my real-life foreign affairs job doesn't require it. It's not like using a planner is a skill that takes years of careful practice. As soon as you want to, you can. As soon as I felt like I was doing something that mattered (e.g. in high school, specifically late high school), I excelled, and ended up getting almost all As.

What are you afraid that could happen if she fails? That she would be 14 instead of 15 starting high school? I bet peer pressure would stop her from flunking anyway, but if she did, who cares?

I wish my parents had not worried so much about my academic performance in middle school. Not for my sake (because I really didn't notice or appreciate how much effort and worry they were putting into it anyway) but for theirs. What a waste of energy. They were frustrated and angry and worried all the time. Nothing they tried worked, but everything ended up just fine.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 3:24 AM on September 5, 2012


Actually, middle school grades determine the classes you will take in high school. My poor math grades in middle school meant that I had to spend basically all of high school focusing on math so that I could catch up to the track that I wanted to be on.

I don't have an answer. I could tell you a story about how my middle school brain was going through some weird emotional/hormonal stuff, after which things just became more "calm." Or how my father explained that school was a game-- the game had rules and worked I a certain way, and it isn't that hard to figure out and "win" at it. Eventually I got my act together and turned out fine. But I know plenty of people who didn't-- there's no guarantee someone's going to "turn it around" just because they get older.
posted by deanc at 5:09 AM on September 5, 2012


You say this...

At my school, our math grades in 5th grade determined which 6th grade class we would be in. There were two: "accelerated 6th grade" and "6th grade". In practice, there was "dumb class" and "smart class".

The "smart class" got treated, by other students and the teachers, as the smart class. We got to do a lot more fun and creative things, got to take an extra elective when "dumb class" had a forced study hall, and really were (even though this really wasn't how it was planned to go) given a leg up over the "dumb class" in every possible way. The smart/dumb class distinction got carried with us even as the classes blended in later grades.

There were kids, just by chance of how they did in math in 5th grade, who were treated like they were gifted (even when they decidedly weren't). And there were kids, just by chance of how they did in math in 5th grade, who were forced to do extremely boring, rote busywork instead of being given the opportunity to learn their own way. I can point specifically to several students I ended up graduating high school with whose academic lives could have been much, much better if they had been treated like they were capable of being smart back when they were younger. And I know for absolute certain that one guy I graduated with wouldn't have gone to college if he hadn't been given constant confidence boost of being smart enough to roll with the "smart class".

My school isn't the best example because it was clearly fucked up in many, many ways, but I just want to point out that even if middle school is stupid and annoying, the grades can matter, sometimes a lot, and play a factor in her later schooling.

That's all.
posted by phunniemee at 8:19 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd be curious to hear from people who have kids who have been in this situation and what approach they took that did or did not work.

What is your home life like?

Two girls come directly to mind who could have had this question written about them at your daughters age. The first one was a family friend. Her parents had just been through an excruciating separation and divorce as the father left to move in with his young girlfriend, and the mother turned to alcohol. She is in her 30's now and said she is just now getting her life back on track because of all this, that happened before she was even a teenager. At the time everyone focused on her, her behavior and school performance as the issue. But the issue was her environment.

The second was my sister. Screaming, hitting, and punishment were daily facts of life in our home. If there was nothing to punish us for that day, something would surely be found. I cringed when you said you might quit your job to "sit on" this girl, because my mother refused to work outside the home for my entire childhood so that she could spend all of her time "sitting on" us. My sister and I both reacted by checking out of our family/home life and becoming ersatz members of our friends' families. I was just so fortunate that my childhood friends happened to be smart, ambitious girls with good families. My sister's childhood friends were more a mixed bag, many with absent or neglectful parents who didn't really care. This was a total fluke just based on which kids were in her year at school, but that's how it shook out. Anyway, my mom sat on her like a freakin' elephant. The more she sat, she more my sister dug in. It took her until well into her 20's to get her life back together, too.

So... are there any issues in your home that might be making your daughter unhappy?
posted by cairdeas at 10:57 AM on September 6, 2012

« Older Snakes aren't the only ones who shed...   |   How do I create a product roadmap editable by... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.