What to do when your son is allergic to schoolwork? When the 5-7 pm “witching hour” of toddlerhood has turned into an equally combative “homework hour”? When you’re tired, so tired, of nagging to get anything done? All you want for Christmas is for him to do what he needs to do without reminders for one day.
I thought I had found the answer when I saw a podcast from the Art of Manliness about a book called He’s Not Lazy by Adam Price. Instead, after listening to the podcast and reading the book for myself, I wanted even more answers. This led me to read three more books on parenting teens, all in the quest to answer the question,
“Should I enforce homework completion or let my son fail to do his homework and learn from it?”
He’s Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son to Believe in Himself by Adam Price (2017)
Adam Price is a psychologist who works with teenage boys who are “not living up to their potential”. They’re not into drugs, not openly rebellious, not bad kids. They’ve just decided that school is at the bottom of their priority list, despite having average or above average intelligence. Many of Adam Price’s clients have been diagnosed with ADHD.
If your kid is like mine, a good kid who is spaced out and unmotivated to do the things he has to do—homework, music practice, chores—you feel exasperated on the one hand and guilty for “sweating the small stuff” on the other hand. After all, your boy goes to school and church, does (some) of his homework, gets passing grades, has a variety of interests. So why does he need so many *&^% reminders just to get through the day?
The answers are somewhat complex. Adam Price walks us through the biology and neurobiology of the teenager, some of the cultural factors making life more difficult for teenage boys, and the dance of ambivalence that parents and sons get caught in. Ambivalence—“two sets of intense and competing feelings.” They want to grow up, but they don’t. We want them to grow up, but we are sad they’re going to fly the nest. Plus teenage boys are wrestling with the question: “Who is the man I am going to become?”
So if he’s not lazy, what’s going on? Price says that, in many cases, our boys are not intellectually or emotionally ready for all the challenges thrown their way. And so they balk. What they need is not more pressure, but space to learn by trial and error; enough freedom to learn on their own; enough time to grow.
One school principal he knows often tells frustrated parents: “You have done everything but step out of the way.”
Price has a number of great “mantras” for parents as they try to step out of the way. They show that we are placing the responsibility firmly in the teen’s hands, but still providing limits and scaffolding.
1) What’s the plan, Stan ?
2) Think strategically
3) If you’re having trouble getting started, the first step is too big.
4) Getting started is the hardest part.
5) What you don’t do today won’t go away, it will just be that much harder tomorrow.
The Appendix contains several tools for helping boys set goals, explore their values, plan long-term assignments, log their thoughts and worries, and make decisions. I’m not sure that many boys would be open to having a parent guide them in using the tools, but they could be passed on to guidance counselors and resource teachers.
In the end, his recommendations are no different those of the other authors above: accept your child for who he is, really listen to him and set respectful limits. But, says Price, being a parent is about becoming competent at feeling incompetent. (Really, really hard for me!)
I highly recommend this book for any parents of boys with ADHD or executive function struggles for the solid science, interesting sociology, and practical strategies. If you want to listen to an interview with Adam Price and Brent McKay before committing to the book, check out the Art of Manliness podcast #448.
However, despite how helpful the book was overall, I found only a contradictory answer to my guiding question: Step out of the way, but here are a whole bunch of tools for helping your kid get his work done. Huh? So I moved on to read a teen-specific version of an old classic that had helped me enormously when my son was younger.
How to Talk so Teens Will Listen and Listen so Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Faber and Mazlish have taken the gentle teaching of child psychologist Haim Ginott and translated it into a practical approach for parents. The book for parents of teens is based on a teaching session they did at a high school, with real-world problems and responses from parents and the teens themselves. They met with the parents for a few weeks, then met with the teens, then did a session with both groups.
They teach active listening, which is restating what someone tells you in response. You’re saying that you hear them and it encourages them to open up further and, often, by talking it out, to solve their own problems.
Teen girl: I hate my friends. They’re so stupid!
Mom: You don’t hate your friends. You had such a nice time with Jen last weekend!
Teen girl: You never listen to me! I hate you!
Mom: Don’t you talk to me like that!
Teen girl: (slams door)
Teen girl: I hate my friends. They’re so stupid!
Mom: You hate your friends at the moment.
Teen girl: Yeah! They posted this stupid picture of me on Instagram and now everyone at school is laughing.
Mom: You’re feeling really embarrassed about this picture.
Teen girl: (Sighs) Well, it was kind of a funny picture. Do you want to see?
But that’s only one side of it, the Listening So Teens Will Talk side. For me, with a chatty only child, the thornier problem is getting him to do his homework, or chores, or to pick up after himself, or to communicate his whereabouts. I was especially interested in learning to Talk So Teens Will Listen which feels like a whole other ball game than it was when he was little.
But is it? Teens still have the same basic desire to be heard, to be respected, to feel competent. So, while the examples in the book are about teen issues, it follows the same Parent Effectiveness Training principles of Active Listening and Problem-Solving you find in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. You still set limits, you still express yourself when your child has crossed a boundary (It makes me really upset when I smell rotten food coming from your room!) but you watch your way of communicating. It’s a practical method for following the Biblical injunction, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.”
Still, I think the first book goes more in depth on the techniques. I get the sense this book is just a refresher course for parents who are already familiar with Parent Effectiveness Training.
But I didn’t find any concrete answers to my question about homework.
The title of the next book had already made me laugh out loud, so I couldn’t wait to dive in.
I’d Listen to My Parents If They’d Just Shut Up: What to Say and Not Say When Parenting Teens by Anthony E. Wolf
I figured this would be an excellent companion to How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and I was not disappointed. Full of hilarious and profane examples of what not to say when talking to your teen, this book covers building a good relationship, teenage verbal darts and temporary character flaws and the scarier issues of drugs, sex and electronic devices, among other topics.
The main nugget of wisdom from this hilarious book is that teenagers (and adults to a lesser degree) have a baby self and a mature self. Teens spend much of the day as their mature selves at school, being cooperative and polite, but when they come home, it’s baby self time. Baby self doesn’t want to do anything and is overcome by inexplicable lethargy when asked to help or do schoolwork. Baby self screams and cries when she doesn’t get her way. It’s never baby self’s fault, either…
Another gem is the good old broken-record technique. Instead of responding to rudeness, back talk, or engaging in efforts to persuade your teen to do something, simply state your point, re-state it if necessary, and then walk away. Do not engage in verbal combat. You cannot win. If you walk away, however, your teen has nothing to push back against, and your words hang there in the air, working the desired effect (eventually).
But regarding school, Wolf says that teens do best when they have pressure from parents or school proctors to do homework at set times each day. Interesting.
Kid says he has no homework? He’s lying. Kid says she got it done during fourth period study hall? Lying. Kid says he forgot his textbooks at school. Forgot? Are you kidding? He left them at the bottom of his locker on purpose. So the question is not “Do you have any homework?” The statement, “It’s five o’clock, time to study for the next hour and a half (whether you have homework or not).” They say they have no homework? I’m sure between Khan Academy , TED talks, , Project Gutenberg and NASA for Students the parent can find something relevant for them to study.
Last week, I put Wolf’s strategies to work. At 5:20, I announced, “Study time.”
Son: But I don’t have any homework. I did it all in Resource.
Mom: No problem, I have stuff you can do.
Son: Can I watch YouTube videos for the whole hour?
Mom: Maybe not the whole hour, but you can start by watching videos on Linear Relations.
(Son watches math videos for about 40 minutes and starts Googling NASA Science.)
Mom: So, what about that math assignment you were working on this weekend? Did you get it done?
Mom: Okay, give it fifteen minutes.
Son: Okay. (Slowly gets into The Zone https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology) and works steadily for 40 minutes.)
Son: Study period is over.
Mom: Okay. How far did you get in your math assignment.
I was blown away.
Here was a tool for getting homework done and possibly for enhancing learning. But would my son ever initiate homework without reminders? Was this to be my daily Sisyphean boulder?
I hoped I would find the answer in the last book of the pile.
Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence: How to Understand and Even Enjoy the Rocky Road to Independence by Carl Pickhardt
The most serious of the four books, Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence is the work of a seasoned family counsellor and psychologist. While the other books in this post focus mostly on “How”, this one is on “How to understand”, in other words, “Why”. Why, for instance, is there the most conflict between teen girls and their mothers, more than between girls and their fathers, boys and their fathers and boys and their mothers? Why do teens lie? Why is conflict inevitable?
So what would Pickhardt say was behind my son’s reluctance to start his school work? And what was his opinion on supervising or enforcing homework completion? Would he suggest I stop monitoring and let my child face the consequences of failure as a path to developing self-regulation?
Actually, says Pickhardt, the only thing teens learn from failure is to take failure less seriously. It’s called “downregulation” or “habituation” in drug parlance. So we, the parents and teachers, have to help them succeed. I had already heard this advice from a Canadian pediatrician with a specialization in ADHD and it squared with my own experience. My kid does not learn from his mistakes. Occasionally he learns from successes. But in general, every day is like his first day on earth and he can’t seem to remember how or why to do anything.
Russell Barkley believes that kids with ADHD have a developmental delay which puts them 30% behind their peers in executive function. If that’s the case, then my Grade 9 student is really only functioning at a Grade 6 level in terms of organization, task initiation, prioritizing, working memory and all the other self-regulatory behaviours affected by the disorder. Would I tell an 11-year-old to sink or swim? No. So, despite the combative response I may get, I will continue to require homework completion. If I don’t, my son will only get used to failure. That’s not a path I want him to go down.
Supervision = checking up on + keeping after about. Supervision is the relentless application of parental persistence to overcome adolescent resistance to taking care of normal household business. Threaten punishment for not doing homework or chores, and you make it sound as thought the adolescent has a choice as far as you’re concerned. Choose not do do them and face a punishment instead. No. These are no-choice activities. They will be done. Parental supervision stays informed and uses exhausting repetition to wear adolescent opposition down so that chores and homework are completed. The teenager is correct to label supervision “nagging” but nagging is honorable work. It is drudgery to do, but it needs to be done because it shows that parents are serious and will follow through with insistence to get what they requested.
Here at last, was the eureka moment for me. The adolescent’s resistance to homework and chores is normal, unfortunately. My response has to be continued supervision, persistent reminders and a no-choice attitude.
That I can do. And accepting that there will be resistance and that I must nag means I can do so with a better sense of humour.
So here are the mantras I've gathered from the four books:
Have you read these books? Are there any others you’d recommend to battle-weary parents needing a morale boost or a fresh strategy?