Hey Elderly Aunt, how do I support my teenaged son whose grades are slipping?

Dear Elderly Aunt: My 14-year-old son’s grades have slipped. While his grades aren’t awful, they’re not up to what he was earning before the pandemic. I regularly ask how he is keeping up with homework and online classes, but he tells me he has it under control. I work during the school day, so I can’t be there to supervise him and want to encourage him to be independent and solve his own problems. At the same time, I don’t want him to fall behind or damage his future prospects because of the backsliding in academic performance. What suggestions do you have for me, as a parent, to best keep him on task while allowing him to succeed or fail on his own?Sincerely, A concerned parent

First and foremost, the Elderly Aunt sends buckets of sympathy your way for having to cope with COVID-19 hitting the fan at the same time your son hits adolescence. She cannot imagine a more formidable challenge—not just for your son, but for all students—to have to go almost overnight from structured, supervised classrooms surrounded by classmates to spending hours alone staring at a computer surrounded by all the entertaining distractions of home. 

At 14, would you, dear reader, have had the self-discipline to pull that off on your own? The Elderly Aunt is pretty sure she would not have. She would have needed to feel accountable to something or someone more immediate and specific than her own distant and nebulous future. And she suspects your son needs the same thing. This is not the time to pitch him into the deep end of the pool of life and let him sink or swim on his own. Teaching him to swim is not tantamount to parental hovering.

First things, first: 

  • Is it possible that your son’s grades are suffering because he’s understandably depressed by the loss of independence and contact with his friends?  If so, would he benefit from professional help with understanding his feelings?
  • Talk to his teacher(s) about your concerns (telling your son before you do) and ask their advice. Fill your son in on the conversation. Remember that quite often a 14-year-old’s best defense against caring a lot—soooooo un-cool— is to act as though he doesn’t care at all.

After this, dear reader, the Elderly Aunt encourages you to recognize that your son is trying to flimflam you when he assures you that “it” is all under control. If it is his first attempt at flimflamming, rest assure it will not be his last. And how you deal with it sends a clear message to him of how gullible you are to his teenage manipulation. She suggests you press him calmly for the specifics of what “it” is that he has under control because it obviously isn’t his academic performance. Do not help your son dig out of any verbal holes he digs for himself. Let him flounder. And grow-up a bit.

State your concerns about his deteriorating academic performance adversely affecting his future as your concerns, and ask if he shares them. If he doesn’t, you have two clear choices: 1) you can pronounce him mature enough to decide such things for himself; or 2) you can accept that you’ve still got some parenting left to do and concentrate on figuring out how best to do it in these trying circumstances. 

A couple of specific suggestions…

  • Even though you can’t be physically present with him during the day, you can still be “parentally” present by setting up regular check-in sessions with him (online or by phone) during which he fills you in on what he’s been up and how it’s going. Let him initiate the contact, but if he sloughs them off, there have to be consequences, such as his current favorite electronic device spending two days and a night at your workplace. 
  • Once you’re home for the evening and have settled in, ask him for the specifics of his assignments. Make a list. Before bed, go over this list and ask for a specific progress report on each assignment.

Tone is all important. Keep yours positive and cheerful. Be quick to acknowledge that in these weird times, the best you both can do is your best. Together. As a team.

The Elderly Aunt offers her thoughtful responses to your questions about this wild ride we call life on every other Monday.  And as a general disclaimer—to quote the elves from The Lord of the Rings — “… advice is a dangerous gift, even given from the wise to the wise.”

Got a question for the Elderly Aunt? Ask her on Facebook or email your question to [email protected] with the subject line “Elderly Aunt question.” (Just please don’t ask detailed financial questions). 

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