Q: Our 15-year-old son, a high-school sophomore, was an honor student until he got to high school and took up with a group of kids who think good grades are “uncool.” As a result, his grades have been in the tank all year (and most of last year). We put him on slight restriction after his first report card, but nothing changed.
For the past three months, he’s been on full restriction: no social life, no outside activities (unless at our church), and no cell phone, television, computer (unless absolutely necessary for schoolwork), or video games. All the things he loves have been stripped. He now tells us that nothing he does ever satisfies us, our expectations are too high, and that he’s resigned to living like this forever. Have we gone overboard? Would restoring some of his privileges motivate him to do better?
A: If in fact your son is capable of making good grades and has chosen the path of stubborn irresponsibility, then it’s entirely appropriate for you to put him on full restriction. Whether they “work” or not in the short term is irrelevant.
One of the purposes of consequences is to help children understand how Real World works. In your son’s case, he needs to learn, before he goes out on his own, that if he slacks off at a job, for example, he’s going to suffer economic consequences that will result in Big Time Restriction. Under his present restriction, he still gets three meals a day, has a room of his own that’s cooled in the summer and heated in winter, and so on. In other words, his current restrictions are small potatoes compared to what he’s going to experience if he pulls the same sort of irresponsible stunt in Real World. Don’t give in to sentiment; don’t be an enabler; hold fast. And by the way, you should also inform him that if he can’t accept responsibility for schoolwork, then you certainly can’t allow him the responsibility that attends driving a car.
Your son’s groaning to the effect that you’re unfair, he can’t live up to your expectations, blah blah blah are nothing but high school soap opera. He’s got a drama going here in which he’s the victim and you are his oppressors. Personal soap operas of that sort are very alluring. They serve two purposes: they rationalize continued irresponsible behavior, and because the victim is the central character, they lend the illusion of self-importance.
One of the greatest hurdles in life is to accept full, unequivocal responsibility for the circumstances of one’s life. That hurdle separates the men from the boys: valid adulthood from emotional childhood. Most people (more and more in fact) don’t clear it until they are well into their chronological adult years. Some never do.
Your son is simply unwilling to accept that he is the architect of his present circumstances, and that as such, he can walk out of restriction whenever he is willing to make right choices. He wants to pin this on you because he’s a child, and that’s what children do. In his childish mind, he’s not the problem; you are. It’s not that he’s being irresponsible and has chosen stupid friends; it’s that your expectations are unreasonable. Oh well. He’s a long way from leaving such childish things behind.
What should parents do when, like you, they’ve pulled out all the proverbial stops and the child in question continues to go down the wrong road? The answer is they should hold the line. They should not compromise, because although doing so may relieve the child’s unhappiness (and no one likes seeing their child unhappy), parental compromise on an issue of this sort compromises the child’s future.
If your son’s on restriction for the rest of his high school years, so be it. You’re expecting what is entirely reasonable. To get off restriction and take full advantage of his high school experience, all he has to do is what he’s capable of doing. That’s nothing more than the high school version of Grandma’s Rule: When you finish your chores, you can go outside and play.
Don’t back down! Someday, when he comes to his senses, he will thank you for this.