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Talking with Your Child About School or College

Sample dialogues for parents seeking to motivate their child through school.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

Do you have a hands-folded child, ever quietly engaged in school except when shooting their hand up in response to the teacher’s question? Does your child eagerly do homework, including the extra credit?

Then this post isn’t for you. It’s for parents whose child is more likely to say, “This homework is stupid,” or “I hate school!”

Here are two sample dialogues. The first embeds common complaints about school. The second dialogue addresses a common issue faced by parents of a college-bound teen. I Intersperse undergirding principles.

Replying to “I Hate School!”

This is difficult because it’s such a broad complaint.

Child: I hate school

Parent: What do you hate about it?

Child: Everything

Parent: Is school too hard or too easy?

Offering a choice encourages a reluctant person to continue the conversation.

Child: It's too easy and too boring. Why do we need to know how to graph an ellipse?

Parent: Why might the math experts have decided that all kids need to know that?

Throwing the question back at the child makes it more likely that s/he will buy the explanation.

Child: I have no idea

Parent: Could it be because they believe it will make you a better thinker?

Child: That’s silly

Parent: Whether or not they’re right, do you feel that striving for a good grade is worth it?

Note that the question was framed neutrally rather than as a leading question such as “You want a good grade, don’t you?" The former is more likely to generate a thoughtful response and perhaps compliance.

The child shrugs.

The parent wisely realizes that's about as much assent as is likely. If the parent waited for the child to say, "You're right," it might be a long wait.

The parent didn’t lose sight of the child’s broad-brush statement, “I hate school:"

Parent: Why else do you hate school?

Child: The kids are mean.

Parent: What do you mean?

Before moving to solutions, the parent clarified the problem, both for her sake and the child's. Asking the child to verbalize it can help crystallize the problem. Of course, this principle is also valid when an adult tells you about a problem.

Child: They steal kids’ lunch, beat kids up at recess.

Parent: All kids do that?

Child: (rolling his eyes) No.

Parent: Do they do that to you?

Child: Sometimes.

Parent: Do you do anything to provoke them?

Child: They call me wimpy, and Einstein and they know I’m not as strong as they are.

Parent: Do you make them feel stupid in class?

The parent had hoped the child would hypothesize a cause, but when s/he didn’t, it’s appropriate to posit a possible cause, especially if posed as a question.

Child: When they give a stupid answer, the teacher often calls on me. She knows I’ll give a better one.

The parent, appropriately deciding not to tell the child to be quieter in class, shifts to looking for another solution, even if it just addresses the symptom.

Parent: Do you tell the recess supervisor about it?

Child: She just tells them to “Stop it,” and then when she’s not looking, they beat me up worse.

Parent: Well, which of these do you think is wise? Tell the teacher, avoid those kids, try to make friends with them, take karate so you can beat the hell out of one of them, and maybe they’ll leave you alone?

Again, offering choices is often wise.

Child: I’m too chicken to fight them.

Parent: Can you try to avoid them?

Child: I guess.

Again, it's usually too much to expect a child to agree and say, “Thank you. I’ll do that.” Planting seeds is as much as can be expected, especially from the first conversation about a problem.

Responding to “I have plenty of time to do my college applications.”

Parent and child often argue about preparing for college: taking advanced placement courses, doing impressive extracurriculars, studying for the SAT, picking colleges to apply to, and completing the applications.

Parent: Would you please get started on your college applications?

Child: The more you pressure me, the more I won’t do it.

Parent: So I’m between a rock and a hard place: If I leave you alone, you don’t do it. If I pressure you, you don’t do it.

Child: I will.

The child privately recognizes the parent’s dilemma, but, again, it’s unrealistic to expect the child to say, “You’re right.”

Parent: When I ask you to get started on term papers, you say you'll get it done, but you wait until the last second, and so you have to cram to get it done.

The parent is right to invoke the child’s track record even if it generates defensiveness. It plants a needed seed.

Child: And I usually get an A or a B.

Parent: There’s no grade inflation in college application essays.

That’s pretty tough on the kid. It implies that the child’s good grades weren’t really earned, but sometimes tough love is needed.

Child: So I end up at SUNY Stony Brook instead of SUNY Binghamton, big deal.

Parent: You say that now.

Child: You tell me not to care about brand names, and now you tell me to care about Binghamton vs. Stony Brook?

The child used a powerful rhetorical ploy: using the opponent’s argument against the parent and implying hypocrisy. That forces the parent to dig deeper to find a stronger argument.

Parent: You're right. Because it’s higher-stakes than a school assignment, if you let yourself really get into it, you’ll benefit, whether or not you end up at a community college, Cornell, or Columbia. The colleges’ differences, even between Columbia versus SUNY, are small. More important, writing a college application can be a growth experience, maybe the most potentially beneficial so far in your life. Do it well, and you’ll get to know yourself better.

Child: (rolls eyes.)

Again, seeds were planted.

As in all endeavors, excellence in parenting is defined by nuance: when to be declarative, when interrogative? When to use a light hand, when to impose tough love? The good news is that in the absence of extremely restrictive or extremely laissez-faire parenting, most kids’ behavior will end up as it was meant to be: the combination of genetics, education, and peer influence. You can relax – at least a bit.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

A previous post ways to talk with your child about death and dying.

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