Getting Kids to Work Harder in School: A New York Times Motherlode Rebuttal

This week on the New York Times Motherlode parenting blog, author/teacher/parent Jessica Lahey* wrote her regular Parent-Teacher Conference column on the question “How Can You Make a Student Care Enough to Work Harder?” The post argues that parents of an unmotivated high school student who has failed a midterm exam should “back off” and allow the student to feel the natural consequences of his poor performance.  While it is an intriguing question, I find myself in sharp disagreement with Jessica, and the many experts who appear in the New York Times column alongside her, about getting kids to work harder in school.


school, motivating students


Most of the commenters seemed to disagree with the educators as well. Many parents deal with this issue at one time or another and struggle to know what is best. We would love to hear from readers about their experiences.

1. Do kids care about school and does that matter?

The first problem lies in the question. It would be great if kids cared about school. It is pure joy to see your child find a subject or teacher who captivates him and then watch his immersion into a new field of learning. Although we cannot force our kids to be interested in something or make them care about a certain subject or class, we can make them care about doing well. And sometimes, that will just need to be enough.

Teens are fickle, The same child will like a class in September and hate it by December. In January they are in the throes of infatuation and by March are sneaking out of bed to play online video games at 2am. It would be great if they cared and were intrinsically highly motivated. And while highly desirable, neither matters, kids still need to do their best. The class is boring and annoying? The subject matter is “stupid” and will never be useful in the real world? The teacher doesn’t understand anything…sorry, as a parent I say, that doesn’t matter.

There is a tacit understanding between us, the parents and our teens, that may need to be made explicit. Here is the deal: we parents are willing to work hard, to sacrifice for our kids and to give them opportunities in life. In exchange, they are required to do their best. Not top of the class, not best on the team…but their best. They cannot give 100% every day or every week, but overall, as parents, we demand they bring the same effort to their job, school, as we bring to ours, parenting. And if teens don’t feel like living up to this deal, there are consequences, both at school and at home.

They want phones and TV, friends over and to be driven to dances. They want their favorite foods from the grocery store and sleepovers. They want new cleats or skates and they want to go to the movies with friends. The list goes on, but I will stop here. The single worst thing that we could teach them is that they can have any of these things if they do not make good on their responsibilities.

2. Do school consequences materialize?

Waiting for the consequences at school may be waiting for something that will never come. Until things become dire at school a student may be allowed to drift. Jessica acknowledges that she has posed a tough question, “It’s time to address the question I’ve been avoiding, the most challenging and most frequent question teachers are asked.”

She enlisted the help of other pedagogic experts but the advice was pretty unanimous, “1. Find something they DO care about and focus on that. 2. Back off. “ Others suggested allowing the natural consequences of the child’s actions (in this case a failing midterm grade on a geometry test) to unfold.

In the example given, there probably will be consequences as schools will not ignore out-and-out failure. But most kids who are disinterested in school or distracted by other things in their lives are not taking their lack of interest to such an extreme. Far more common, I imagine, is underperforming. It is the A student getting B- or the B student sliding along with C+s.

How many schools are going to intervene when kids are giving 50% effort and getting by with passing grades? What are the consequences? An astute teacher might express disappointment, and offer the encouragement that he is really expecting more. An advisor might make it clear that honors classes will become out of reach, or that remedial classes are in the offing, but these are hardly consequences to a student who has discovered hours spent on social media are a lot more fun than hours spent with a biology textbook.

Waiting for natural consequences may mean waiting until the situation is grim and even then, a short-sighted teen may fail to respond appropriately. Some will come around, others will delude themselves into thinking they have the situation under control until they find out they don’t. We are all capable of self-deception, but in teenagers, this capacity is seemingly infinite. Natural consequences sounds like a nice idea, a way to rely on the maturity of the teen, but by the point at which such consequences kick in, the situation may have become quite dire.

3. Does the parent have a role to play?

The educators in the Motherlode piece inveighed against parental intervention, “… do not take over where your child has fallen off. Let this be his or her struggle, not yours.” Here is where I and many of the other commenter on the NYT site part ways from the article’s authors. Teens may be caught between childhood and adulthood, but sometimes they seem like little more than children with large bodies. Like the children, they can be in the moment with very little thought to the consequences of how they spend their time. There is rarely a time that physics looks more interesting than Facebook.

Poor performance in high school has its consequences in life and, while a teen may know this intellectually, they may choose to ignore it. Many high school kids struggle because of their lack of time management or other organizational skills. While they may be capable of mastering the material, they may be underestimating the amount of time that is needed, the careful notes that need to be taken or importance of preparation or homework assignments. These are skills that can be taught, and enforced by a parent. They are essential skills that will be needed in any academic or employment situation.

But this involves close monitoring by parents, rather than stepping away. It involves parents saying, “how much homework do you have?” Here there will be a long pause. “How much time will that take? When are things due? What is your schedule for getting that done given your other time commitments?” Parents can model the executive function thinking that teens can lack, showing them the thinking process that leads to accomplishing tasks in a timely manner.

One middle school teacher quoted in the piece suggested that parents, “Acknowledge the work you see your child do and praise him/her for the effort more than the end result. Don’t focus on what is not being accomplished.”

As a parent, I have taken a different approach. At one point, with a child who was underperforming in high school, I mounted a large white board over his desk. Every day after school he had to write down every task that he faced on the board and then erase them upon completion. This served the dual purpose of keeping me informed (without daily nagging) of how much work he faced and where he was in terms of completing it and he had to stare at this oversized to-do list on the wall of his room. No progress on the list? No car keys, no Netflix, no computer time, and eventually no cell phone. In my very small scientific study I have determined that a teen will do almost anything for a cell phone.

Being a helicopter parent has surely gone out of fashion, but helping our kids work through their troubles is timeless parenting.

*Next year readers will be treated to The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. Jessica became a sensation (no surprise to us loyal fans) when she wrote an article for The Atlantic, “Why Parents Need To Let Their Children Fail.”  One thing led to another and a subject this large could not be contained in the pages of a magazine and thus her book will be born.



  1. says

    I just retired from teaching in a high school and understand the angst of this post. Seems that students need to become closely acquainted with older students who didn’t take school seriously and how they’re doing now. Many times, this not caring results in switching to easier majors in which graduates aren’t getting jobs. If students could see the long view, it might help.

    • says

      Denice, I think you are so right. Parents can help them, perhaps, see the longer term, or at least keep as many options open as possible. Thanks for lending your expertise.

  2. says

    As the parent of an underachieving high school kid (now a senior in college) with whom we battled on a daily basis, I was infuriated when recently he commented that he wished we had pushed him harder. You should have seen the look on his father’s face as he reminded him of the nightly arguments! Teens are NOT adults, and not equipped to manage their lives without our input. I agree with you that the idea of letting them deal with the consequences is wrong. Something tells me that Jessica Lahey doesn’t have any kids of her own in high school yet.

    • Becky Blades says

      Amen, sister. My daughter just texted me “I wish you had not let me quit piano.”
      I suppose I would have been tougher, knowing what I know now. But we were learning as well. It is humbling to recognize that while we were teaching our kids delayed gratification, we were struggling with that ourselves.

      • says

        Ooooo…I hate that “I wish you had not let me quit…” They have no recollection of the battles we fought to make them stick with something. But I think there is a lesson here for younger parents. It may seem rough but teens will turn into young adults and appreciate some of our efforts.

  3. says

    Yes, yes, yes. I think parents need to find a balance between getting involved AND letting their kids suffer the consequences…but those consequences should come from the parent. In other words, by stepping in we are doing our children a favor. It’s how heavy-footed we are that takes a delicate balance.

  4. says

    This seems like a very good balance to me. Teens in general are not realistic about consequences, and leaving them to fail in something that could affect lifelong goals seems irresponsible to me. Certainly it is healthy to let them fail on occasion and see the results of their choices, but that tempered with keeping them on track when they need the guidance seems like reasonable parenting.

  5. says

    Tough times for teens always. How many times have adults told them they need this class, they need to study, they will need this in life! The teenage brain can not comprehend the complexities of life and that is why parental guidance is important.

    • says

      Thanks Haralee. They sound so rational and they look so grown up and then when you listen to some of their reasoning it all becomes clear why we are the parents. Thanks Haralee

  6. happy outlook says

    I really like your whiteboard idea.

  7. Emily says

    Yup, we’ve got the under-achieving high school student too and we have learned that we have to stay on him to do his work, that he doesn’t push himself hard enough, that he’s not organized (that’s a big one) and that he does need our guidance. We too bought a big dry erase white board to hang above his desk…you’ve just motivated me to get that thing up because it’s still sitting in the box it came in.

    • says

      The organization and time management are root of the problem for so many kids, helping them with this is far more beneficial than tutoring some times. Hang up the board and be religious about it, it works.

  8. Helene Cohen Bludman says

    My son was under-achieving in middle school but the school did not see this as a red flag since he was still passing his subjects. Not good enough for us. We ended up moving him to a different school where the expectations were higher and the scrutiny was constant. I think that the school and the parents have to be in sync on this if the student’s behavior is to change.

    • says

      Helene sounds like you found a great solution. I couldn’t agree with you more about getting in synch with the school.

  9. Lori says

    This well-reasoned rebuttal to the recent “motherlode” piece flies in the face of most of the parenting advice/ “wisdom” we’ve been hearing for years, which implores us to “back off,” “let them figure out what authentically matters to them,” and above all, “stop hovering” over their terrain. But as my two sons approach adolescence and their high school years, I’m eager to hear from a seasoned parent who has found a way to keep their kids’ motivation levels higher than they might have been if left to their own devices. Parents who have successfully navigated their own academic and professional lives in the past DO have ideas, skills, and work habits, and expectations to share with (or at times, drill into) their children , and it’s refreshing to hear someone arguing that it’s important for them to do so. It’s a balancing act, of course, as exemplified by the example of the white board the author put in her son’s room: a useful tool to help him function more effectively without the mother constantly micro-managing his time. Thanks for this post!

    • says

      Lori, you could have written the post. As hard as it is for our kids to believe we have learned something about how to manage tasks and some of it we learned from our mistakes, we actually know a great deal that can help them. Always a balancing act, and some kids of course manage quit well without our help. But I just feel it is incumbent on us to be there when they don’t. Thanks for your thoughts on this, great input.

  10. says

    I see this from two perspectives: Parent of three adult children and college professor. I do believe we need to set standards for what we expect our children to achieve in school in terms of grades, etc. Expectations in a positive way…because they are capbale…rather than a negative threat seem to work best. However, you can’t FORCE a child to study so the only leverage you have, as Lisa noted, is to take away privileges, from cable TV to cell phone, etc. etc. Even if you do that at least one child will ask, years later, why didn’t you push me harder; nothing you can do about that! When my children went to college, we expected at least a B average; if not, they had to leave. Thankfully they all met that goal.

    As a professor I try to help students with one-on-one session etc. etc., warning them that they will fail the class if assignments are not handed in on time, etc. Even then though you can’t force them to do the work and over the years this approach has worked with some and failed with others. One size does not fit all and internal motivation counts for a lot.

    • says

      Your approach in the classroom is surely what many kids need, but do not always get. And I think you are so right about one solution not working with every kid. Also if my experience is anything to go by, an approach does not work right away. I had to stick with a few of my methods for a while before I saw any progress and then, while you are waiting, you wonder if you are doing the right thing.

  11. says

    We are facing a similar situation with regard, not to academics, but to the playing of a sport in college. We, along with coaches, etc., were mustered — at the last minute — to support her decision TO play a sport in college, as opposed to her previous decision NOT to play a sport in college. This entailed LOTS of scrambling by MANY people, not just her parents. People to whom we will be forever grateful!

    Now that offers from schools and coaches are coming in, it seems that she may have changed her mind YET AGAIN. We, my husband and I, are faced with straddling that fine line between encouraging her to do something we feel she will absolutely regret NOT doing and supporting her decision NOT to play. What we have been trying to explain to her is this: The opportunity WILL NOT exist next year. It’s now or never.

    We honestly feel that she should, if the opportunity to play matches up with where she feels comfortable attending college, play for one season and THEN, if she finds she does not have the time or the interest level, she can make the decision not to return to the team her sophomore year.

    I have no idea what is going to happen, but it’s very difficult to sit on the sidelines and NOT express your opinion, an opinion gained from your own experiences — experiences both as people who were once young and made foolish decisions AND as the experience we have gained through being HER parent.

    I think that sometimes it is imperative that we intervene. Ultimately, neither her father nor I will “make” her play a sport or choose a college solely based on their interest in her athletic prowess, but we will sure as hell continue to impress upon her the importance of not taking lightly those opportunities that are being offered to her.

    • Elizabeth cicchino says

      We were in the same boat with our daughter. Ultimately and unfortunately I believe they have to decide and if they realize they made the wrong decision well then they will have learned a lesson of sorts. Believe me I can see how frustrating it is…good luck

  12. Elizabeth cicchino says

    I agree with the notion of consequences for your actions and do believe that you are correct that things that matter to them that are taken away are far more successful than just letting them fail in class. The problem is we have a teen that fights us every step of the way and never seems to learn even when things that matter to her are taken away. But I can see how with a more rational teen this would work.

    • says

      Elizabeth, so hard to know what to do with each teen. As parents of young kids it would have been impossible to imagine the challenges that lay before us. Thanks so much for jumping into the conversation here an with other commenters, your thoughts are appreciated.

  13. mam says

    Assessing, assisting and supporting your child when they struggle is a big part of parenting. In my experience, kids don’t just quit trying in school, generally there’s an underlying cause to the struggle. Thoroughly evaluating the school, home and social environment is necessary. (Is homework being completed, Is the student organized, What’s the teaching style in the classroom, Is there too much TV/social media/gaming time? Is it a new school? Problems with friends/romance? etc). And if it’s the problem is a lack of understanding the material, helping your teen alter behavior(love the white board idea), learn study strategies and teaching him how to ask for assistance is essential to success. Now is not the time to back off, it’s the time to direct your struggling teen.

  14. Ellen says

    I have had three boys go through high school to date, and two more on the way- and I wish I could say I have found the answer to question underlying the article “how can you get your kids to work harder?” I do know that one size does not fit all – my oldest son did not respond at all to taking things away but my fourth son just got the best grades of his life because the previous quarter we didn’t allow him to have any social life. I am reading a good book right now that I think should be mandatory for high school students (and parents) – it is called “Mindset-the new psychology of Success” by Dr. Carol Dweck- Prof. of Psychology at Stanford. She explains the difference between a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset” the former being one who can not deal with failure in a constructive way, therefore never putting forward their best effort, and the later who sees failure as an opportunity to learn something new and therefore works harder to achieve mastery. More effort =most success! The most important lesson in the book is that the “growth mindset” is teachable .

  15. Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms says

    As you know, I wrote about helicopter parenting but you highlight a crucial part of being able to step away, your child has to care and they have to have skills. You have to teach them the tools they need to use – note skills, responsibility, and time management. (We used sticky notes on the bathroom mirror instead of the whiteboard.) You just can’t throw them in a helicopter and expect them to fly.

    I spent years teaching my daughter how to study for math and she learned how to succeed and how good it felt to succeed. When she was resistant before one particular geometry test (read- complete fit), I landed the helicopter and she got a D. But she cared and she knew what worked so this proved as a lesson.

    I totally agree with you that a child has to majorly tank to draw attention before it is too late. A C+ does not a squeaky wheel make. We have to make the consequences.

    Very thoughtful article.

  16. Carpool Goddess says

    Backing off has never been something I’m good at, especially when I see that what they need most is my help. And I totally agree, by the time the teen figures out it’s an issue, it could be too late in the game to make a meaningful change. By the way, we have a white board at home. Post-it notes too :)