Dear Mr. Dad: We’ve tried to stress the importance of study habits to our 12-year-old son. But no matter what we do or say, he seems to end up playing video games instead of doing his homework. What can we do to make him start taking studying seriously?
A: Whoa. Before we get to the homework thing, we need to talk about the real issue: What can you do to get your son to start taking YOU seriously? The simplest approach (although, I admit that it’s not going to be easy) is to take away the video games. Whether it’s confiscating his DS or tablet, locking up his game controllers, or activating the parental controls on his computer, you need to take some firm steps right now. Your son is still young, but if he doesn’t start taking schoolwork more seriously soon, his grades may interfere with his post-high-school education and, eventually, his choice of career.
If possible, get your son involved in the discussion—have him suggest ways he can earn back his gaming time. The more the rules come from him, the greater the chance that he’ll follow them. But make sure he’s got things in the right order. Schoolwork first, then games. No exceptions.
Okay, back to homework—but again, we have to start with a different question: When did this behavior start? If he’s never had any interest in studying, that’s one thing (and we’ll get to that in a minute). But if this is a relatively new development, you need to figure out what’s going on.
Has anything in your son’s life changed recently? Did you just move to a new neighborhood? Could he be having a problem with a teacher? Is there any possibility that he’s being bullied at school? Have you and your spouse been fighting a lot or are you getting divorced? Any of these can cause significant—but usually temporary—changes in study habits.
Your assignment is to get answers to these and other similar questions that could be influencing your son’s schoolwork. This is going to involve spending more one-on-one time with your son and learning about his life and how he feels about things.
The temptation is to sit him down and start grilling him, face to face. Don’t. It’s hard for a teen to interpret that kind of approach as anything but hostile. Instead, start by asking him general questions about school, friends, music and other non-explosive topics. And do this while you’re driving. There’s something about not having to look at each other that can remove some of the barrier to communication. If you listen carefully and resist the urge to lecture, you may get the answers to your questions without actually having to come right out and ask them. And in the process, you’ll be strengthening your relationship with each other.
Now, what if he’s ever been interested in studying? Is it possible that he’s not getting enough intellectual stimulation? This is big. A child who finds schoolwork to be boring may simply tune out.
If it’s not that, communicating with your son will still be the goal, but there’s a twist. In this case, you’ll try to find ways to build on his natural interests. For example, if he loves sports or mechanics or cooking or whatever, start there. And then find ways to introduce math or science or language arts principles through those interests. Showing him that what he’s learning has some actual real-world applications will make it a lot more interesting—and worth working on.