A dad, his son, and Ds and Fs
A Dad’s Point of View column by Bruce Sallan
What parent hasn’t dreaded report card time, especially when a child is underperforming? How do two kids, born of the same genetic material, turn out so differently when it comes to school performance and their work ethic?
When is it wrong if the “problem” child gets more attention than the one who gets his work done and maintains good grades? These are questions most households face and we are definitely in the middle of them right now.
My older son, Will, is multi-talented when it comes to music and disinterested when it comes to school. He plays several instruments and is almost a walking encyclopedia of contemporary music and even knows quite a bit about music from previous generations. He’s also multi-talented at fooling me about his school-work, even though he’s clear the truth about his grades will always surface.
I’m told that teenage brains aren’t fully developed and that rational thought doesn’t actually enter their heads until their 20s. Okay (heavy sarcasm now intended), that excuses his excuses and, therefore, I’ll just let him continue to fail some classes, do sloppy work all around, and prioritize his social life over school. He also knows that a “B” average is necessary for him to be allowed to drive or even get his driver’s permit. Just after his 16th birthday I’ve learned he’s failing English.
English! His own language. I know “English” isn’t a class about learning to speak the language, but is about learning grammar and how to write. His dad is a writer, but will he come to me for help? Nah, he can get the “F” all by himself. Now, I’m sure you’re sensing a little anger and attitude coming from your erstwhile columnist. That’s because I am angry and frustrated.
This is where the contrast between siblings is so stark. His younger brother thrives on the discipline of school and homework. He requires no supervision. In fact, he often requires persuasion to skip school for a special occasion or trip that we might have planned. He’s actually afraid of his teachers. What a quaint idea in our age where some teachers are more afraid of their students and their parents. But, too much of the household attention is focused on his brother and that just isn’t fair to David, who is doing so well in school.
I know that we have only limited control of our kids’ behavior, especially as they enter fantasyland–the teen years. I’m reminded of a good friend who went through this sort of problem with his older son. At one point, they removed everything from his room–computer, books, games, pictures, literally everything! All that was left was a bed on the floor. His beloved portable devices, cell-phone, computer, etc. were all removed. Did he change? Nope. He was more stubborn than his parents, who eventually returned most of his stuff.
This is a loving nuclear family in which mom and dad are present, involved, and care deeply for their two children. Their son eventually rebelled further and they had to send him to a wilderness rehab camp where he partially turned around. My friend says the most important lesson his son learned was an awareness of the consequences of his actions on others–a great lesson for most teens.
Now, in his middle 20s, this young man is living on his own and supporting himself. He’s still searching for fulfillment of his career passion, and has kept the same job for a while now in that field, though not making the kind of money he’d hoped for. That passion has been consistent for a long time, as has his passion for regularly smoking marijuana. His parents believe that this is their son’s way of self-medicating his inherent personality issues.
These parents still beat themselves up over what they might have done differently. I know them well and I know their son was destined to go his own way. He’s smart, still has his head on his shoulders, has never had a problem with the law, and may pull out of this successfully, though it will never replace all the lost and graying hairs on my friend’s head. Their biggest frustration, much like mine, is knowing that their son has all the tools and all the ability, but isn’t living up to his potential.
My son respects me. I support his extraordinary musical talents, but he will suffer consequences for his recent deceptions about school. His room won’t be emptied, but his computer is now available on an “as needed” basis as I have his keyboard and mouse. His social life is limited and he’s partially grounded, while I’m continuing to support his band practices and music lessons. While his attitude reflects irritation, he also still talks to me and hasn’t resisted a single “consequence” as he does know he’s messed up. As we say in my men’s group, he’s “owned” his part in this.
Will he turn it around before he’s 18? I hope so. Is there more I should be doing? I’m still discussing that with my wife, my men’s group, and our therapist, as maybe further therapy might be another option to include in our master plan. I never said it would be easy, being a parent, nor have I ever said that this dad has all the answers.