Getting Back on Track


What are some practical steps you can take to end underachievement in a teenager?

Q. Our 17-year-old is a perennial underachiever. He's had up and down grades all through school. Other than this one problem, he's a great kid— respectful, sensitive, helpful, reasonably well-behaved. With graduation in a little over a year, we're starting to worry that he may not make it in the world. We've tried using every carrot and stick we could think of, but nothing has worked. He is currently making four F's. Our current tack is to do nothing, but simply tell him that the consequences of underachievement as an adult are going to be far worse than ours. Are we on the right track?

It seems to me that you're on no track at all—that this train is derailed. He seems to have no appreciation of the fact that Real Life is not going to put food on his plate. Talking yourselves blue in the face is not going to correct his myopia.

I'd tell him that the responsibility of doing his best in school is minor compared to the responsibilities involved in driving a car. For example, underachievement puts no one else's life at risk, but driving a car does. Since he can't deal with the lesser responsibility, you can no longer trust him with the greater responsibility. You'll let him drive again when his grades come up to par.

I'd also take the door off his room: "You need to begin to get used to being homeless, because that's a distinct possibility in your life. Homeless people have no privacy, so neither will you until your grades come up."

If experience serves me well, those two moves will put him in checkmate and he will begin doing, albeit slowly, what's necessary.

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