Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I have always tried to emphasize good study habits to our 13-year-old daughter. But no matter what we say or how many times we say it, she goes into her room, closes the door, and plays on her phone or texts her friends instead of doing her homework. There has to be something we can do to get her to take her schoolwork more seriously, right?
A: Well, yes, but before we can tackle the homework situation, we have to get a handle on the bigger issue: What can you adults do to get your child to take YOU more seriously?
The simplest approach (warning: it won't be easy) is to shut off her phone. Most cell carriers have features that allow you to turn off individual lines on your plan or disable the internet, either at certain times of the day or after certain usage limits have been reached. Same goes for your internet service provider, in case your daughter is going old school and uses her computer instead of her phone to fritter away her time. If those approaches don't work, demand that your daughter physically turn over to you every electronic device in her room until she's done with her work. If she insists that she needs technology to do that work, you insist that she do her work at the dining room table with you right there to watch and listen. Either way, you need to take some firm steps right now. Your child is still young, but if she doesn't change her attitude about schoolwork soon, her grades may suffer, which could impact her choice of colleges or majors, which in turn, could affect her career options.
If possible, get your daughter involved in the discussion — have her suggest ways to earn back her phone or computer time. The more the rules come from her, the greater the likelihood that she'll follow them. But make sure she gets the order right. Schoolwork first, then games. No exceptions.
OK, back to homework — but again, let's start with a different question: When did this behavior start? If she's never had any interest in studying, that's one thing (and we'll get to that in a minute). But if this is a relatively new development, you need to do some detective work.
Has anything in your daughter's life changed recently? Did you just move to a new neighborhood? Could she be having a problem with a teacher? Is there any possibility that she's being bullied at school? Have you and your spouse been fighting a lot or are you getting divorced? Any of these can cause significant — but usually temporary — changes in study habits.
Your assignment is to get answers to these and other questions to find out what's going on with your daughter's schoolwork. This will involve spending more one-on-one time with her and learning about her life.
The temptation is to sit her down and start grilling her. Don't. It's hard for a teen (or anyone else) to interpret that approach as anything but hostile. Instead, start by asking general questions about school, friends, music, and other non-explosive topics. Do this while you're driving. There's something about not having to look at each other that can remove some of the barriers to communication. If you listen carefully and resist the urge to lecture, you may get answers to your questions without having to actually come right out and ask them. And in the process, you'll be strengthening your relationship with each other.
Now, what if she's never been big on studying? Could she not be getting enough intellectual stimulation? Kids who find schoolwork boring often simply tune out.
If it's not that, communication is still the goal, but there's a twist. In this case, you'll try to find ways to build on her natural interests. For example, if she loves sports or mechanics or cooking or whatever, start there. And then find ways to introduce math or science or language arts principles through those interests. Showing her that what she's learning has some actual real-world applications will make it a lot more interesting — and worth working on.
Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.