How To Get Your Teen to Talk About School

Hint: Stop Talking about School

Photo by Jesús Rodríguez on Unsplash

Last year, my son had a rough transition to high school. He went from a very small private middle school (54 kids in his grade) to a large public high school (500 ninth graders and 2000 students overall). In addition to crowded classes, busy and boisterous hallways, and teachers who were too stretched to connect to every student (especially a quiet and obedient one who daydreamed in class), my son had to struggle with two hovering, nosy parents who hounded him about his grades and his homework.

The availability of real-time updates via the school’s grading system meant we could see every late assignment and low mark. We were anxious about every blip and dive and we asked him constantly what he planned to do to “fix” his grades. His response was to become mute and sullen, shrug at our efforts and complain about the tutor we hired. By the end of the year, his grades turned around and he finished off in a good place, but we doubted that our nagging had been a positive contributor to that outcome.

I wanted this year to be different and I know my son did, too. My husband was more reluctant to change. He hoped our son would become personally motivated to excel. He also knew that nagging wasn’t an effective tactic to create our son’s motivation. The anxiety of not checking our son’s grades was too much for him to bear.

After the first week of school was spent repeating our old pattern — nagging our son into sullenness — we decided to try something different. We would shut up about school most of the time if our son agreed to talk to us about school once a week. He could pick the day. We would get him a tutor only if he wanted it. He was responsible for tracking his homework and grades and we’d bite our tongues for six days out of seven.

Our son chose Mondays because then he’d have all week to make up any problems we identified. The fact that he had a reasoned approach to his selection was the first hint that he might be capable of doing this himself. He didn’t want a tutor, but he did download his teachers’ messaging app so they could remind him of open assignments. And my husband and I settled in to watch.

At first, it was difficult. My husband still pointed out to me the problems he saw on the grading system. He didn’t turn in this yet, he got a 79 on that. I noted that we should treat the grading system like the stock market and check it sporadically just to make sure it was moving in the right direction. He didn’t laugh at my analogy, but he did stop telling me our son’s grades.

After a couple of weeks, we noticed that our son had become chattier at dinner. He wanted to talk about politics and had some ideas about the Democratic Party frontrunner. He asked about foreign policy and told us a bit about the conflict over Kashmir. After he was excused from the table that night, and after we lifted our chins from our laps, my husband and I savored the moment.

Our Monday evening discussions were rough at first, but when he figured out that we just wanted to note some positive trends and ask about some difficulty he was encountering, he started to relax. When I told him his former eighth-grade teacher was now tutoring, he volunteered that he would like to work with him. After the first marking period ended, he started setting his alarm at 6:30 am so he could wake up to finish his homework before school. I was shocked to find him in the kitchen one morning, getting a cup of coffee while he read a book that had been assigned for school. A few nights later, I came upon him in the living room, reading a book about the war in Iraq for pleasure! Who is this mystery child?! He has also started communicating more with his teachers and taking advantage of their offers for additional test-taking time after school, all ideas we’d nagged him to try last year but didn’t mention this year.

When we used to ask him about school every day, often with an accusatory question, he was angry and defensive. Now that he knows those questions will only be on Mondays and won’t sound accusatory (because we’ve prepared for the conversations), he’s more relaxed around his dad and me. When I say, “Can I ask you something?” he doesn’t say, “WHAT” in an angry tone. I’m usually just asking about what he’d like from the store, or how rowing practice went or did he read this funny thing in the paper? So much stress is gone from his interactions with us that I feel silly for not shutting up earlier.

We have a younger son, and we haven’t done as great a job at chilling out with him. He’s struggling a lot more with school and resisting our interventions a lot more. My husband and I are trying to learn the lesson our older son is teaching us, but old habits die hard. We have work to do, but I know that the more I shut up about school, the more he’ll talk about it. I’m looking forward to when I am mature enough to parent that way.

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