Parenting An Average Student

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boy-studying Image via Shutterstock

One of the most challenging aspects of raising my son was accepting the fact that he was an unmotivated student. Though his father and I tried not to let his grades define how we saw him, especially during high school, they did have an impact on how we viewed ourselves as parents. We had moments of self-doubt and, at times, questioned the way we had raised him. What had we we done wrong?  What did we miss or fail to do to motivate him to succeed?

Nothing really, it turns out.

It was never up to us to motivate him in the first place. He had to find the motivation within himself.

In the hyper-competitive world of AP classes, honor rolls, valedictorians, students-of-the-month, perfect SAT scores, 4.0 and above GPAs, scholar athletes and more, having a child with average grades is considered a serious problem by many parents and can even be viewed by some as embarrassing and shameful. A “C” student might as well be a high school dropout as far as many top-tier colleges and universities are concerned. Some high school counselors, who can be overloaded by the sheer number of students they manage, and private admissions consultants, concerned about their reputations and admission rates, are quick to dismiss average students as junior-college bound.

Just because a student has average grades in high school doesn’t mean he or she won’t succeed in college.

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My son was an average high school student, graduating with a GPA that was just shy of 3.0. There were a number of reasons for his less-than-stellar performance in high school, including a mild learning disability (ADHD) and a severe lack of motivation. His father and I did everything we could think of to ignite an interest in academics in his intelligent but disinterested mind. Among other things, we hired tutors, including the one PhD English teacher at his high school who had been so inspirational to our older daughter. As I surreptitiously listened each week, I was struck by how utterly bored my son was, despite the fascinating (if somewhat exasperated) way the teacher explained the text. For me, a voracious reader with an English degree, my son’s disdain for literature was both sad and a little terrifying. How would he ever make it in college without the skills to interpret complex writing?

And yet, when it came to sports, my son was a font of knowledge. His recall of baseball and football statistics was encyclopedic. He could dissect and evaluate every play in a football game the way mathematicians solve complex calculus equations. What good would all of this information do him, his father and I wondered. On the other hand, we felt the life lessons he learned playing football in high school – commitment, discipline, respect and teamwork – would be of great value to him, so we supported our offensive lineman and his team. We hoped that his zeal for learning about sports would someday translate to his academic pursuits as well.

The belief that attending a top 50 university is the only path to success is not only untrue, but impossible for the 95% of high school students who don’t have the grades and/or the financial ability to attend one of these elite institutions. There are thousands of excellent schools that will admit average students and offer them the growth experiences and education that are the reasons to attend a college or university in the first place. My son was fortunate to be accepted to one of those universities.

Parents of average students might want to consider doing things differently than we did and fight their understandable instinct to constantly push their students to perform better in school. Many teenagers don’t reach a level of maturity to find the impetus to work hard until after high school. The fighting and arguing about getting him to work harder, study more and do better was futile and frustrating, and caused unnecessary stress for both my son and for my husband and me.

In my son’s case, it wasn’t until he went to college and found something that captured his attention – in his case, American History – that he was able to earn the grades we always knew he could.

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My son graduated from college – in four years – in the spring of 2014. The key to his success was finding support and counseling throughout his college experience, along with simply growing up. His senior thesis was on the history of the Mexican baseball league and its impact on the sport in the United States. He received a B plus on his paper. He now has two jobs, one in management for a college football team and the other in public affairs for a large energy company. He succeeded despite being an average high school student – and without his parents breathing down his neck. He did it on his own, which for me is the most gratifying thing of all.

It’s unlikely a potential employer will ever ask him about his high school GPA. Why would they? There’s so much more to him than that.

Note: This post was written with my son’s blessing and encouragement.

Related post: About a Boy

5 Things Your Middle Schooler Is Doing Right Now

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middle-school

As a middle school teacher, I assure you that the modern day middle school experience is every bit as awkward as yours was. Since you’ve probably blocked out those memories, here’s a refresher on the five essential activities of the middle schooler.

1. Finding out some piece of fascinating, yet grotesque and terrifying knowledge about sex. Elementary school playground talk bordered on the silly and patently false; No one freaked out when Cindy McClanahan told everyone that sex was when a girl and a boy licked each other’s butts, because no one thought that was actually true. Same when Billy Gibbs said that all the families in the neighborhood had two kids because wives got pregnant by eating one of their husband’s testicles. But middle schoolers are seeing more mature films, having more unsupervised time online, and hearing more from their older siblings, so their sex talk has the air of authenticity. I’ll never forget the slumber party conversation during which I first heard of a blow job. Purely speculative, of course—my cadre of friends and I were still trying to get boys to notice we existed—but I was dumbfounded. What? People put… that’s a thing? So make sure you don’t talk about anything sexy around middle-schoolers. They’re already traumatized.

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2. Being hopelessly, obsessively in love with someone. Middle-schoolers are notorious for being fickle, but what their affections may lack in duration, they make up for in intensity. The Adored One may be someone your child has never interacted with, doesn’t currently interact with, and will never interact with. He or she also might be a giant fuck-up and the last person you’d ever want to see your child wed. Don’t sweat it. Once high school comes, he or she can move on to more terrifying people who might actually impregnate, or be impregnated by, them. You’re welcome.

If there’s one thing that defines a middle-schooler’s existence, it’s this senseless, aching passion known as a “crush.” My seventh-grade crush had long hair and an earring and smoked cigarettes behind Turner’s Bowling Alley, where I saw him every Saturday morning for Youth Bowling League. I would follow his movements with my eyes while Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” evoked in me a curious feeling I now know as “sexual awakening.” In my journal, I lamented the impossibility of our union; he was a rebel, I was a nerd, and we’d be forever fettered by the labels society had imposed upon us. He had a longtime girlfriend whose bangs were formidable in both size and stiffness. In 1989, this meant she was an alpha female. So I stayed to myself, drawing hearts on the cover of my journal with nail polish and obsessively calculating and recalculating our compatibility using a time-tested formula based on how many letters our names had in common.

For most of my middle school career, though, my crush was my academic rival, whom I inexplicably failed to woo by beating him twice in the school spelling bee. Although he lived in my neighborhood, the only time I ever came close to talking to him was when my parents drove by his house one summer day and he was outside shirtless mowing the lawn, whereupon I screamed and ducked behind the passenger seat. We did finally share a painfully robotic slow dance at the eighth-grade formal, but were “cut in” upon by a popular girl. She finished the dance with My One True Love while I went home to pack for the National Spelling Bee. The local paper ran a full-page photo of me with a mouth full of braces and my arm around an unabridged dictionary, which I’m sure made me irresistible to every boy in the eighth grade.

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The moral of these stories is, there’s nothing you can do as a parent to control or even mitigate the vicissitudes of love. Just remember not to talk about anything sexy, ’cause it’s gross.

3. Contending with some sort of physical calamity. There are so many of these in preadolescence—acne, orthodontic torture devices, changing in the locker room, the first menstrual period, random classroom boners. But what I remember most are the fashion calamities. At no other time in life will people look as completely ridiculous as they do in middle school. The evolution of my fashion sense in middle school went something like this:

Sixth grade: Hmm, my parents are largely picking out my clothes for me, but these hand-me-downs from a slightly older family friend obviously are not working out. You know what will fix that? A giant bow on my head for picture day, and silver shoes from Payless Shoe Source. There. Now you’re stylin’.

Seventh grade: Buy me whatever anyone else is wearing. I don’t know why people are doing this with the bottom of their jeans; just leave me alone. Yes, I need two pairs of socks. In contrasting colors.

Eighth grade: Now that I’ve almost got this figured out, it’s time to switch things up a bit. A skort in a loud, hideous print? And a matching one for my best friend? All we need is matching t-shirts decorated in puffy paint. I think we all can see who’s the trendsetter here!

Boys, at least, don’t have to contend with makeup. One day in eighth grade I put mascara on my eyebrows. I have no idea why I did this. The boy who would later become my best friend, with a candor I’ve come to appreciate in a gay man, said, “Oh my God; what did you do to your eyebrows?”

I shrugged. “Just something different, I guess.”

He continued to stare at my face. “You look like a vampire.”

Your parental responsibilities on this one are pretty light. Let your kids wear whatever. If you have to go to the mall, just walk far behind them. That’s what they want anyway.

4. Struggling to navigate a barely navigable social hierarchy. If you have a middle-schooler, he or she is probably being threatened or socially excluded somehow. And chances are, he or she is threatening or excluding someone else. I don’t necessarily mean “threatening” in an overtly physical way, the way I was threatened by the biggest girl in seventh grade, nicknamed “Beef,” who vowed every day to beat me up in the locker room. She also enjoyed torturing me by putting my ink pens down her pants, which I had done absolutely nothing to warrant. (Except, I suppose, being a small, timid overachiever who named her ink pens. But that’s neither here nor there.) “Threats” in middle school can be, and often are, unspoken, leveraged by those with social power. And since what middle-schoolers desire most is social approval, those unspoken threats can be very compelling. Daily, middle-schoolers are getting thousands of (sometimes conflicting) social messages: If you do this, people will like you; If you do this, people won’t like you. Above all, the object is to conform, to blend. Not to stand out, and not to look weak. Middle-schoolers need to be babied sometimes, but they can’t risk letting anyone see it.

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With such enormous social pressure, is it any wonder that middle-schoolers sometimes feel that pressure from their parents will take them over the edge? Parents want them to be mature, but not to grow up too fast; some kids are given the responsibilities of adulthood before they’re given the rights, some vice versa, and some are given both way too soon. I’ve seen enough kids cry in conferences to know that many do want to please. They just can’t please everyone, enough, all the time.

5. Worrying about being normal. This is one thing you, as a parent, can do something about—nonverbally, verbally, whatever way you can. Middle-schoolers need reassurance that they’re OK. And that it’s all going to be OK, even if it seems weird and horrible right now.

In fact, that reassurance may be the single most important thing you can give. So give it liberally.

But don’t talk about sex. That’s gross.

10 Benefits to Having Teen Boys

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teen-boy-awesome
Gone are the days when I was chasing my three active boys around the playground, or wiping their chocolatey mouths or their cute, little butts. Although two of my three boys are now teenagers, my house is still chaotic, dirty and noisy with a large dose of testosterone pulsing through it. Still, there are times when I long for that phase of them being young again, when I could pick them up and kiss their pudgy cheeks. Yet, I’ve recently discovered that being a mom to teenage boys has benefits that I never would have foreseen when they were little guys…

1. I don’t have to bug them to take a shower. Teenage boys want to look and smell good. No more fights to force them to actually wash their bodies. They have girls to impress!

2. I can curse in front of them. For me, the mom with the potty mouth, this is a huge benefit. If I let the F-bomb slip, instead of receiving a judgmental, “Mommy said a bad word” I’ll likely receive a high-five.

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3. I don’t need to buy them clothes. Three rotating outfits will be fine. They care about how they look, but not THAT much. And their clothes pretty much work year-round. T-shirt and shorts are status quo, and when it’s real cold, a pair of jeans or athletic pants and they’re all set.

4. I don’t have to have “the talk” with them. Yeah, I’m leaving all the embarrassing discussions to Dad. He can review puberty, shaving, and any talk about testicles with them. Sorry, not my department.

5. They’re never too cool to hug their mom. They may go through a few years where hugging dad feels awkward, but mom never gets rejected.

6. If I don’t feel like talking, I can get away with it. Teenage boys are not the most prolific creatures. Sometimes grunts and one-word answers are all you’ll get. And if I’m in a bad mood or it’s before 7am, I’m the same way and essentially mute. My boys never even notice.

7. They are stronger and taller, so I have a built-in helper. Need something off the top shelf? Need some furniture moved? No problem! A teenage boy seems to happily oblige if it means showing off their new and improved muscles.

8. I can finally have privacy in the bathroom. Nothing scares a teenage boy more than seeing his mom naked. He will do anything and everything to avoid this from happening. You can enjoy long, hot showers or take a magazine to the porcelain “throne” and I can promise you, you won’t be disturbed like you were when they were younger.

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9. I can read their minds. If one of my teens is upset or stressed or worried, I can see it immediately. Teenage boys may hold it together for their friends, but in front of mom, they are as transparent as water.

10. I can feed them Hot Pockets, frozen dinners, or leftover Chinese food and they won’t care. Teenage boys are hungry all the time, so as long as you keep a steady stream of food going into them, they won’t care if it’s home-cooked or straight from the box. Carbs are carbs and that’s all that matters to them.

As of now, I’ve got no complaints being a mom to teenage boys. But, one year from now when my oldest will be learning to drive, my list will change and so will my attitude. Please send me valium now, because that’s one teenage milestone I’d rather not face.

How To Wake A Sleeping Teenager (Without Starting World War III)

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Unmade Bed

When I hear parents of young children talk about how their kids are up before the sun rises, and how they can’t wait until they’re older so they can get some extra sleep, I empathize. Then I tell them not to wish it away too quickly, because sweet toddlers in the pre-dawn hours beat grumpy-teen vampires any day of the week.

When my sons were little, they were early risers too, though luckily, they didn’t feel the need to do somersaults the moment they opened their eyes — a big help since I was often up late doing freelance work.  Still, 6 a.m. came awfully soon. To ease our way into the day, television shows like Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and Arthur were my drugs of choice, along with my mother-in-law’s video gifts of SpongeBob SquarePants and Yu-Gi-Oh! — both shows I swore I’d never watch but ended up doing exactly that, laughing along with the boys. On the rare occasion that they overslept, I couldn’t — certain that there was something wrong, I’d sneak into their room to check to be sure they were still breathing.

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Years passed.  And as they did, the boys woke later and later, until, as children tend to do, they became teenagers, and the only part of the wake-up routine that was familiar was the checking-to-make-sure-they-were-breathing part.

Today, I’m a self-certified expert in How to Wake A Sleeping Teenager. Hundreds of hours have gone into my training. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Don’t Do This:

1. Take away privileges. When you’re frustrated, it’s tempting to show who’s boss. But the reality is that they’re teens for seven years. And sometimes longer. Pretty soon they’ll be muttering, okay, whatever. And you will be too.

2. Buy multiple, creative alarms. They will tune them out and make them part of their dream sequences which they will tell you about in elaborate detail, usually when you are driving them to whatever it is they are late for.  Not even an alarm that sounds like a rooster, or one that recites lines from classic movies in ridiculous voices, or one that says wake up in progressively louder voices. I have tried them all.

3. Send in the dog. This will backfire because it will make them happy and when they are happy, they feel cozier, and when they are happy and cozy they go back to sleep because they want to keep dreaming.

Do This:

1. Quietly open their bedroom door, head to the kitchen, and fry up some bacon.  You won’t have to say a word. Swear.

2. Piss them off. And believe me, this will be easy to do, regardless of how well-meaning you are. Try coming into their room and raising the blinds, or turning on the light. Or cheerily saying, Good morning, sweetheart. Or better yet, if you’re in a house with two levels, call their name from downstairs, which will sound like a yell because it is after the first few times you say it nicely.  They will then sit up and yell back one of two things: WHAT? Which will piss you off because they know very well what, or I’M UP MOM! which they are not, because if they were, neither of you would be yelling. Word of warning here — these methods are guaranteed to rouse them, but will also excite the bear in them and they will not be nice again until they have eaten.

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3. Text them.  Why would they hear a text ding or feel its vibration if numerous alarms don’t work? I have no idea.  They are the next generation and they have been rewired — trust me on this.  But here’s the thing…in your text, you have to offer to take them to Subway because it turns out vampire teens will wake for Subway.

4. If all else fails, bring out the big guns; Turn on the cartoons. They secretly miss them. And the chance to slow the world down and watch them with you.

8 Ways To Be, Like, The Worst Parent To Your Teen

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pissed-off-teen Image via Shutterstock

1. Take an interest in their lives. Ask about their friends, their friends’ parents, and how their day was. Initiate a conversation that requires more than a one-word response or grunt.

2. Lay down some boundaries. Even if they are teeny, tiny boundaries, like bedtime, or how many nights a week it’s ok to stay over at a friend’s house, or when and where it is acceptable to poke a new hole in your body. Apparently, rules serve no purpose other than to force your kid into a box of conformity and suffocate all their individuality.

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3. Allow them the opportunity to amuse themselves — without electronics — for an hour each day. Encourage them to use their imaginations, or OH THE HORROR, read a book. Refuse to cave in to the pending panic attack caused by the separation anxiety due to the loss of the iPhone or iPad for thirty minutes.

4. Give them chores. Ask them to haul their knee-high pile of filthy clothes to the laundry room themselves, or, oh sweet merciful heavens, to rinse the dishes or load the dishwasher. How dare you try to instill a sense of personal responsibility toward their own living space, or teach them how to properly load a washing machine so that they don’t destroy their entire college wardrobe the first month away from home!

5. Ask them to participate in family time for at least half an hour each day. There is nothing in the world quite as lame as Family Game Night, especially if it’s an activity that requires everyone to be in the same room, or *gasp* interact with each other!

6. Talk about the hard stuff. Like sex, drugs, politics, religion, and why there’s a towel under the bed that could stand up on its own.

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7. Show up. You don’t even have to sit on the front row. You could be hiding out in your minivan in the parking lot, with the windows rolled up. Just being there is enough to scar them for life.

8. Try to help… with ANYTHING. If you haven’t learned by now, you don’t know jack shit. You were obviously hatched fully grown and never lived through any teenage drama yourself, so you have nothing of interest or relevance to contribute to ANYTHING your teen might be going through right now.

Related post: How to be the Most Embarrassing Parent in the World