Let this 11-year-old take responsibility for himself

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 8, 2009 06:00 AM

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Hi !
My 11-year-old son is a bright kid (he's had IQ and other testing that indicates this), but when it comes to getting him to sit down and apply himself to learn something, he puts up a complete block. He has a particular problem with writing from his head. If he's given a report to write, he will just find something passable on the internet or in a book and copy it verbatim to his paper (whether it makes sense or not, which it often doesn't). He refuses to put anything in his own words. He's been tested for ADHD and dyslexia and has neither, but he does have some issues with comprehension. He argues and procrastinates and puts off doing his homework (especially writing homework). We've bribed him, threatened him, and punished him by taking things away, but we're at our wits end. We've talked to his teacher and school principal and tried everything they've suggested. We even have him going to a reading tutor. But he is willful and argumentative. What can we do??????

From: Annie C. Spokane, WA

Hi Annie C --

Consider this: That he might be afraid of failing, that is, that he's afraid he will not meet his own expectations, or yours.

And this: That he has a problem with executive functions, that is, that he can't figure out how to organize his thoughts or where to even start?

And this: That this has more to do with parent-child dynamics than an organic/cognitive problem. Nagging, bribing, threatening, punishing? No wonder he's willful and argumentative? How else can he exert his autonomy?

My advice is to back off, especially since you've tried everything else and since he's tested negatively.

It's time for him to be in charge of his homework himself. Suggest that you draw up a homework contract: Psychotherapist Dawna Markova describes such a contract as a promise by parents to back off and stop nagging, bribing, and generally breathing down a child's shoulder. In return, the child promises to do the work to the best of his ability and to agree to: a) ask for help when he wants it; you promise to help only with what he has asked; b) a weekly check-in, at an agreed to time, where he shows you work he has been doing for that week, including work that has come back from the teacher; c) revisit the issue if the work he's doing is not meeting the standards the two of you agree to ahead of time.

This kind of homework contract enables him to take responsibility for himself and to experience natural, appropriate consequences when he doesn't. (Part of this conversation could include such questions as, "What kind of grades do you hope to get? What kind of comments do you hope to see from your teachers?")

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3 comments so far...
  1. Maybe my 11 year old can lend your 11 year old some excessive perfectionism? Too much of a good thing, that.

    What's the big deal if he gets a couple of F or D- grades here? He's 11 - it isn't going to matter in any way, shape, or form in the long run. Maybe that sort of external feedback would serve him right and make him turn it around on his own.

    My SIL backed off of my neice and let her fail, and she failed HARD. She got to experience all of the consequences for failing, too. Her next report card was up to her ability because she wanted it to be ... and she wanted to play sports, participate in clubs, not be laughed at by friends, etc.

    Isn't that what growing up is about? You won't be there when he is an adult - he has to learn to do this himself. It certainly worked with my older son, who has knuckled down - peer pressure and privileges (and the threat of little brother racking up a better report card) were all that he needed.

    Posted by infoferret December 8, 09 10:08 AM
  1. I just finished a great book called "Organizing Your Disorganized Child" (I forget who the authors are). It's very slim and not expensive, so you may want to look into it. While most of the book focuses on issues of disorganization, there was a large, very thorough section on studying and study skills. This might help not only with the general homework struggle, but also with him being better able to organize his thoughts and overcome whatever it is that's going on with reading and writing. Try to diffuse the situation first and resolve the power struggle (a few bad grades won't kill and 11-year-old).

    Although he's been tested for things and seems OK on paper, I bet that at the heart of things, even under the best circumstances, there is a learning struggle going on that no one has correctly diagnosed yet. My 6th grader was tested repeatedy for special ed services from grades K-3 and in 4th grade, they finally put him on an IEP because clearly there was a problem with his schoolwork even if there isn't a name for it (he has a hodgepodge of written language issues). Once this is no longer a power struggle and discipline situation (at home) then maybe he can get to a place where he can articulate what the problem is in a way that the adults in his life can offer concrete help. If your gut is telling you that there is a learning disability or something along those lines, don't ignore that instinct. If the reading tutor didn't help much, find another one (we lucked out with our first, who was a life-changer for my son).

    Finally, taking work from other sources, unless he is accurately citing it, is plagiarism. If you know he is doing this, make sure his teachers know so that they can follow through with whatever the school policy for this is. When I was in school, you failed the report (at minimum - consequences included suspension for repeated offenses) and still had to complete the assignment, basically doing all of the work anyway for a lousy grade. Perhaps dealing with a consequence like that once or twice will convince him that it's less hassle to just do the work himself the first time, even if he doesn't do it easily or well.

    Posted by Jen December 8, 09 02:21 PM
  1. At 11 it's okay to let him fail. 6th grade grades don't matter for college admission. Let him find out the natural consequences for a while and let him know that if he would like help, you will help him organize/get him a tutor/whatever.

    You need to cut the cord at some point...are you going to go to college with him and stand over him and talk to his professors for him? I would hope not...so you need to cut it now and let him learn to take care of these things on his own with your support should he ask for it. That way in high school you'll be less involved, and by college he will be ready to handle life as an adult on his own.

    Posted by c December 8, 09 03:49 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. Maybe my 11 year old can lend your 11 year old some excessive perfectionism? Too much of a good thing, that.

    What's the big deal if he gets a couple of F or D- grades here? He's 11 - it isn't going to matter in any way, shape, or form in the long run. Maybe that sort of external feedback would serve him right and make him turn it around on his own.

    My SIL backed off of my neice and let her fail, and she failed HARD. She got to experience all of the consequences for failing, too. Her next report card was up to her ability because she wanted it to be ... and she wanted to play sports, participate in clubs, not be laughed at by friends, etc.

    Isn't that what growing up is about? You won't be there when he is an adult - he has to learn to do this himself. It certainly worked with my older son, who has knuckled down - peer pressure and privileges (and the threat of little brother racking up a better report card) were all that he needed.

    Posted by infoferret December 8, 09 10:08 AM
  1. I just finished a great book called "Organizing Your Disorganized Child" (I forget who the authors are). It's very slim and not expensive, so you may want to look into it. While most of the book focuses on issues of disorganization, there was a large, very thorough section on studying and study skills. This might help not only with the general homework struggle, but also with him being better able to organize his thoughts and overcome whatever it is that's going on with reading and writing. Try to diffuse the situation first and resolve the power struggle (a few bad grades won't kill and 11-year-old).

    Although he's been tested for things and seems OK on paper, I bet that at the heart of things, even under the best circumstances, there is a learning struggle going on that no one has correctly diagnosed yet. My 6th grader was tested repeatedy for special ed services from grades K-3 and in 4th grade, they finally put him on an IEP because clearly there was a problem with his schoolwork even if there isn't a name for it (he has a hodgepodge of written language issues). Once this is no longer a power struggle and discipline situation (at home) then maybe he can get to a place where he can articulate what the problem is in a way that the adults in his life can offer concrete help. If your gut is telling you that there is a learning disability or something along those lines, don't ignore that instinct. If the reading tutor didn't help much, find another one (we lucked out with our first, who was a life-changer for my son).

    Finally, taking work from other sources, unless he is accurately citing it, is plagiarism. If you know he is doing this, make sure his teachers know so that they can follow through with whatever the school policy for this is. When I was in school, you failed the report (at minimum - consequences included suspension for repeated offenses) and still had to complete the assignment, basically doing all of the work anyway for a lousy grade. Perhaps dealing with a consequence like that once or twice will convince him that it's less hassle to just do the work himself the first time, even if he doesn't do it easily or well.

    Posted by Jen December 8, 09 02:21 PM
  1. At 11 it's okay to let him fail. 6th grade grades don't matter for college admission. Let him find out the natural consequences for a while and let him know that if he would like help, you will help him organize/get him a tutor/whatever.

    You need to cut the cord at some point...are you going to go to college with him and stand over him and talk to his professors for him? I would hope not...so you need to cut it now and let him learn to take care of these things on his own with your support should he ask for it. That way in high school you'll be less involved, and by college he will be ready to handle life as an adult on his own.

    Posted by c December 8, 09 03:49 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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