October 7, 2019

The October School Blues

October is where the rubber hits the road. Academically speaking.

September is all shiny and new and hopeful – new books, clean crisp notebooks with no mistakes or missteps…  or missing homework. New school clothes and new friends.

But now the shine is off and we’re singing the midterm scholastic blues. Like all blues songs, this one is instantly recognizable as a dirge. Parents are tired and it’s not even Halloween. Sick and tired already of nagging kids to do homework, study for the test… and that’s without mentioning cleaning their rooms or doing the odd house chore.

It would be so easy to blame our kids for their scholastic lassitude, but when a problem becomes fairly widespread, it behooves us to examine its underlying causes.

I believe the roots of kids’ not taking more responsibility for their core work – school – lie somewhere in the area of volition. Doing stuff you want to do. Or don’t.

Every day I go to work I’m happy to be there. Like any job, mine has occasional swaths that are deeply unpleasant. But mostly it’s wonderful. And from there cometh my motivation to get through every day, including the challenging and exhausting ones.

I think kids are struggling with the motivation piece. They’re under so much pressure to do the right extra-curriculars, get super-high grades, compete to get into the right business program at the right university…. Get the right internships to build the right resume… and so on and so on. The pressures to build the right future are starting earlier and earlier.

At camp, I often ask young staff what program they want to do at university and where they want it to lead. A decade ago the majority of them would say: “Maybe law, I don’t know. I’ll see,” Now the majority of them are shooting for either the Ivey biz school or the business undergrad program at Queen’s. And I pretty much never hear the words: “I don’t know.” Gone are the days when high school grads assumed that a liberal arts B.A. would lay sufficient foundation for their future. And when not knowing was okay.

These kids start to worry in Grade 9 about not getting on track to get the business job that makes the big money. And who else worries about their future? We, their parents. We worry with them and for them. It’s in the air they breathe.

Which creates a paradoxical response. Teens rebel. It’s in their DNA to avoid doing that which parents most want. It’s developmentally required.

So they drag their heels on schoolwork. How could they not, when we want it so badly they can taste it?

The solution to this problem is guaranteed unpalatable to parents. As a world class control freak, I have a lot of trouble with this as a parent. The solution is to go hands off. Nature abhors a vacuum. If we back out of wanting academic success for our kids, they may have some psychological space to choose to do well. And they may not.

What I advocate is risky business, because some kids won’t get off their butts, and will fail. Or come perilously close to failure. From which they will learn. And have a great opportunity to make different choices. They might not graduate high school on time. Might have to do a victory lap… or two. And I’ve got news for you. When you’re in 3rd year university applying for grad school, they don’t ask how you did in high school. The upside of giving kids room to make choices far outweighs the downside of them taking some extra time to find their goals, their passion in life.

There’s a world of difference between challenges we have to take on and those we choose. The difference, a huge one, is that when kids choose a challenge, it gives them the experience of making the hard choice to do something scary or hard. It being their choice matters enormously.

When kids make choices to do hard things, it changes how they see themselves in the world. It increases their sense of agency. They get to practice making hard choices. If you stop and think about what are the crucial life skills, the ability to make hard choices might be near the top of the list: Moral, emotional and physical choices. This comes into play in both personal and professional life. What happens if kids don’t get much practice at it? They get stuck in not taking 100% responsibility.



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