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High Grade Expectations



I need a little advice.  I have four teenagers.  One a gifted boy (17.5) into history, government, football, and wrestling.  A very intelligent girl (15.5) into literature, journalism, fashion, and boys.  A smart girl (17) into friends, drama and movies. And a more “I don’t care about my grades” and hand’s on, tech school or military type boy (15) into cars, motorcycles, four wheelers and girls.  The first two are mine who actually live with me.  The second two are my step children who do not.  As far as my two go, I have set an expectation in my household that they do not bring home report cards with any grade below a B.  Progress reports are ok as there is time to discover the problem and solve it.  I do this because I know that they are both capable of achieving A’s or B’s; a C simply means you are not applying yourself or not turning work in, something other than ability.
Now also keep in mind that I used to be a high school teacher, so each of them knows that I am always available and capable of providing assistance, but rarely do.
I don’t want to sound like Joan Crawford or anything.  Our home is very youthful, candid, playful, moderately lenient, moderately restrictive, and pretty tolerant.  We are parents that are sometimes more like friends, sometimes more like big brother or sister, and sometimes like parents, depending on the situation.
The kids think it is wrong of us to have expectations of them that are above the national average grade of C.  Of course I believe they only say this because they just don’t want to be held to it.   When they were younger, we simply said that anyone bringing home a report card with a grade lower than a B would be grounded till progress report time if it wasn’t raised.  Now that they are older, a junior and sophomore, I am second guessing myself.  It kinda feels wrong to keep grounding them.  Especially the older one who drives, dates, and works.  We never seem to have much extra money, and I have always taught my kids that good grades is an intrinsic reward, so I have never paid them for good grades.
Now, 3-4 weeks after report cards came out, I realize I never saw them, so I had the school fax them to me.  I see my daughter with 2 C’s at quarter and one at semester.  My son has four at quarter and three at semester.  I have to get them back on track.  College is right around the corner plus they are both in the A+ program.  Both plan on attending college.  I need help.
I guess my question is two fold:
1.  what do you think of the expectation?
2.  how do you suggest I enforce it?
Thank you,


Dear Mom,

My name is Jody McVittie and I’m part of the team that answers questions for the PD website.  I’m also the parent of 3 young adults (ages 21-16) and a family physician. Your concern is one shared by many, many parents around the world.  Underneath I hear the question, “How can I get (make, motivate) my teens to do well in school?”  The simple answer is that you can’t “make” your students engage in school successfully any more than you can “make” a toddler go to sleep at bedtime or pee in the potty.  You do however, have influence.

Your inner sense that “it feels kinda wrong to keep grounding them” may be close – only I wouldn’t call it “wrong” as much as less than effective (as you’ve discovered). There are other things that you can do that increase your influence and strengthen your relationship with your teens.

Before I make specific suggestions, I invite you to get into their world a little bit. This means developing an understanding of teen development. Teens undergo tremendous changes in their bodies and their brains. The brain changes allow for them to see the world in shades of gray and increase their logical thinking power (hence the wonderful negotiation skills). The emotional centers in the brain are sensitive to the hormones of puberty and can result in moodiness, sensitivity and also misreading other people’s facial expressions. It is helpful to remember that the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for emotional regulation and “common sense” among other things) doesn’t fully develop until about age 25.
As they develop into mature adults teens are moving from a sense of DEPENDENCE to INDEPENDENCE. It is only later, after developing a sense of who they are, that teens can move into what we might call a sense of interdependence – where they become a little less self preoccupied. You’ve seen this push for independence before: when children are about two years old they explore it, and again when they are four and need to do things “by myself.”  It is an internally driven process to acquire the sense of who they “really are.”
Most healthy teenagers start figuring out who they are by figuring out who they are NOT. The most obvious choice of who “not to be” are the people they know best – their parents. Teens can spend a moderate amount of time and effort in becoming a “not-you.”  In particular, the easy “not-you” targets are the things that you as a parent care the most about. If you strongly believe that families need to hug each other to show love, it is likely that your teen may go through a “don’t even think about touching me” phase. Can you see where this is heading?  What if you really care about academic performance and are an ex- teacher? This doesn’t mean you should change your expectations. It does mean that HOW you communicate about learning could make a big difference. Your teens don’t want to do it YOUR way. They want to do it THEIR way.  AND they probably care about grades too – they just don’t feel like it can be “theirs” when you are making a big deal out of it.

Hear are some specific ideas:
1.  Spend some time really thinking and noticing what is REALLY important to you. This means getting underneath the first layer of fears.
a) Make two lists:  First spend some time with yourself and look seriously at your fears. They are reasonable.  I’m guessing you are afraid that with bad grades they won’t get into college – or the college of their choice. You might be afraid that not going to college will really make a difference in their life.  Do you notice a small feeling of panic?  Make a list of your fears.  Then stop – and take a good assessment of your kids. Notice how resilient they are and have been. They are smart. They are creative. They are social. They have friends who care about them and who they care about. They are learning about relationships. They are surviving a disruption in what they once knew as family. They care about their own future (even though they do it differently than you do).  Make a list of all of their sources of strength and skills. Now you will have two very different lists.
b) Spend a little time with those two lists. What if students as talented and skilled as yours had a bad year?  Could they recover?  If they took a slightly curved path through adolescence what might they learn or appreciate differently?  What would happen if they “got it” that in fact, THEY were responsible for getting where they wanted to go instead of you?  My guess is that with a little faith in your kids, you would recognize that in fact, they are going to be alright – that it might not look like you want it to look like – but they will get there and be better, more compassionate people for the journey.
c) Pay attention to what kinds of things might be really dangerous and get in the way of their long term success. These are places where your job as a parent for ensuring safety is still really important for teenagers.  When you look at it this way you’ll be able to set a clear bottom line – and in a way that is helpful for you and your teens. For example, other parents come up with things like: driving drunk, getting addicted to meth, cocaine or heroine, joining a gang, getting pregnant or getting someone pregnant, having a car wreck in which someone is seriously injured or killed, getting really depressed, developing a severe eating disorder or an internet pornography addiction etc.

2.  Begin to communicate with your teens differently about learning and academics.  Here are some ideas to play with.
- Let them know that you can’t make them get high marks – much less “make” them learn and that you are going to stop trying to make them by trying to hurt them when they don’t meet your expectations.  You still care, and hope they care – but you don’t want to take away their responsibility for doing the work themselves.
- At a time when emotions are not high, ask curiosity questions about what they want for their life. The key here is to do it out of interest and curiosity, not to prove a point. Examples might be:  “What are your dreams for after high school?”  “What is your plan?” “How do you feel about what is going on in school?”  “How do you feel about you grades this quarter?”  “What would you like to do about it?”  “How could I be supportive?” (With this last one, be really careful to maintain self respect and don’t do things for a teen that they can do for themselves.  What I mean by that is be clear about reasonable limits – which would mean that you aren’t typing papers, doing their work or answering last minute questions at midnight).
- Be honest about your fears in a way that owns them as yours.  For example: I realize that you are a really smart and capable person – and I also know that part of me is afraid that you aren’t going to have the opportunities that I, as your unbiased mother who of course thinks your are more wonderful than other mother’s kids, think you deserve.  And I also know that this is my stuff. It is because I care so much that I want the best for you. I’m guessing that it isn’t much fun to have my mother stuff hanging over you the whole time.  Some times I nag you and hound you because I care about you.  Can we work something out that we both can live with?

3.  Work hard to see your kids for who they are instead of for who they aren’t. It may not seem like a big deal, but teens have huge “parent radar” and they can feel the difference when you have faith in them and are willing to let them learn from their own mistakes – and still have some clear bottom lines.

4. You can’t “enforce” grades but don’t be afraid to set limits respectfully when safety is an issue or when there are agreements that need to be kept. If the bottom line is that you aren’t comfortable with a certain activity then say so. Acknowledge that they might live with an old-fashioned mom – but that is who they have. If the household responsibilities need to be taken care of before they go, be clear about that ahead of time and then follow through. If agreements are not kept (coming home on time, for example) then find a time the next day and problem solve in a respectful way.

5.  Enjoy them. Find time to spend with them, and expect that they make some time for you to do fun things together – even it is brief (watch a movie, play a game, walk the dog, go on a walk, go out for tea/coffee). Eat dinner as a family as many times per week as possible. They will be leaving very soon – and now is the time to invest in the relationship that you will share for many years.

Other resources that you might find helpful are: some books in the Positive Discipline series like Positive Discipline and Positive Discipline for Teenagers. You might also enjoy Staying Connected with your Teenager by Michael Reira and the Frontline video “The Teenage Brain” which is available at many libraries.

Your teens (all of them) are lucky to have a mom who cares and loves them as much as you do.  Best wishes!

Jody McVittie

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