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You can't 'make' a teen care about grades

My son is an eighth grader. He is not trying at school. He doesn't care about school and doesn't apply himself. If he put in some effort, he'd be a B student. I'd be happy with that. But he doesn't do anything and he gets C- or C. We've tried offering rewards for good grades and cutting off privileges for bad ones. Nothing works. What can we do to make him care enough to try harder? We want him to go to college.

From: BV, Brockton, MA

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Dear BV,

Back off! There's nothing you can do that will "make" him want to try harder. What's more, if you're nagging him now, you will totally lose credibility when it matters more in 10th, 11th or even 12th grade. Some kids don't start to care until then. And you know what? That's OK. There are about 2,000 colleges in the US. If your expectations are realistic -- and if he wants to go to college -- he will find an appropriate school. Finally, lectures and punishment aren't typically helpful at motivating a teen to get better grades. This has to come from within. In fact, punishing him for poor grades can lead to a backlash where he gets frustrated and tries even less hard.

That said, you are not powerless:

* Since he doesn't care about grades, what does he care about. Is he athletic? Musical? Artistic? Does he care about writing? Film? Computers? Having a passion about something is important -- help him to figure out what that might be and take an interest in that yourself. Are there clubs at school he could explore? Finding a niche, and seeing progress and success in almost any activity, can improve a teen's sense of self-esteem which can translate to doing better in school.

* He doesn't have to get As and Bs to get into college. For many kids, caring about grades doesn't kick in until junior or even senior year and for some kids, it takes a gap year or a year of working before they care enough to apply themselves. I don't mean to sound simplistic, but remember the advice about potty training? That if you wait until a child is ready, it will happen faster and easier? Same thing applies to wanting good grades.

* Pay for grades? I'm not personally a fan, but I know some parents find success in rewarding good grades with big (or not so big) bucks. The argument is that if $ improves study habits, the intrinsic desire to succeed will follow. Like I said, I'm not a fan but I'd love to hear success stories.

* Talk to some teachers or his guidance counselor. Sometimes just knowing a parent is paying attention can motivate an educator to pay more attention. One mentor, one teacher or coach who shows a personal interest can make a huge difference in a teen's life.

* Focus on continuing to build your relationship with him so that as he gets older, the relationship is stronger, not weaker. Find some shared interests. Do stuff together. These early teen years are typically when parents get frustrated and distance themselves. Don't make that mistake. Ban criticism, harping and sentences that begin with, "Why can't you......" OK, OK, don't ban it, but cut down considerably. Praise and reinforcement for a step in the right direction can work wonders, although -- and this is important -- don't over-do it. Too much praise can turn a teen off as much as too much criticism.

* What role model do you present? Do you show an interest and have family conversations about current and the news? Do you read books, newspapers, magazines? Eat dinner as a family three or four or five nights a week? Do you take adult ed classes, go to seminars, lectures or workshops to show that learning is a life-long process? Do you talk about your own aspirations, frustrations, successes and failures? Talk about yourself: Make "I" statements ("I wish I had paid more attention to academics.") rather than making "You" statements ("You won't make anything of yourself unless......")