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.

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