May 6th, 2013
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high school diplomaWe reached the end of the road with my seventeen-year-old son who will not do his school work. We’ve tried peanut butter sandwiches instead of yummy food until his work is turned in. We even tried charging him $50 per missing assignment out of his part-time job paycheck. He cried when he had to pay us $200 then turned around and paid us another $150 for three more missing assignments. So did he really care? I don’t think so. The final strategy–and this sounds draconian, but we were trying to get his attention–was to drive him to a motel and tell him we were paying for a thirty-day stay, and when he was getting close to the end of the thirty days, he would probably want to care enough about food, shelter and clothing to get a job. A job that didn’t require a high school diploma.


I only left him in the room for twenty minutes, and I paid $52 to teach him that twenty-minute lesson. I only wanted to get him to care enough about his education that he would start doing the dang work. While he was sitting there for the twenty minutes, I called our therapist, and we devised a plan. She put it bluntly: If he needs to fail, he needs to fail, and we can’t prevent it.

We saw her together the next day. She said, “The first thing your mother said to me when she called was, ‘I have no intention of leaving Gavin here.’ Your mom is very sad that you don’t care enough about your grades to do the work. She is trying to get your attention so that you understand how important it is to graduate high school.” She then told my son that he was on his own for school, that I wouldn’t be checking his grades anymore, and we wouldn’t be talking about missing assignments in therapy anymore.

I had already come up with that idea as well. I was starting to think that one reason my son was so irresponsible with school is that I was his safety net, and he knew that sooner or later I would catch his missing assignments and require him to do them. I did tell him that I was here if he had questions or needed help with an assignment, but that he would need to ask. The counselor told him, “If you need to fail, you go ahead and fail. We can’t stop you. No one can make you care.”

I talked with Gavin a couple of days later and asked him what he had learned from the experience. He said, “I think it’s time I grew up.” He volunteered that he had taken the initiative to check his grades online at the library during lunch, and had talked to one teacher already about making up a missing assignment.

I asked him if he thought he had been less responsible because he knew I would catch him sooner or later, and he would have to do the work. He said yes. I asked him if he thought he would have been more responsible sooner if I had quit pushing him sooner and he said yes. That made me feel foolish, but at least I’ve stopped pushing him now.

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done to let him take responsibility for success or failure in school. I know how important a high school diploma is, especially today when even college graduates have difficulty finding jobs. But the bottom line is that I can’t force him to care, and my pushing seems to have backfired. I have to sit on my hands not to check the school’s website for his grades, and bite my tongue not to ask him if he has homework. School is over in about a month, and I’ll know then whether he passed his classes. In the meantime, I repeat the mantra, “I can’t make him care, I can’t make him care, I can’t make him care,” all the while hoping and praying that something will.

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5 Responses to “When Giving Up Works”

  1. Sadia says:

    I feel for you. “Tough love” is just that: tough. Tough on you, tough on your child, and tough on the people around you. The relative whose child I am trying to adopt is in a similar boat as your son, except that we’ve been her safety net for much longer (far too long), and rock bottom for her is much deeper, it seems, than for your son. I don’t think she’s hit it yet, and it breaks my heart. Much as I would love to swoop in and make her care, I can’t. She’s now homeless and has lost her son. And don’t know how much further she has to fall to want to start clawing her way out of it.

    Hang in there. Everything you’re doing (or not doing) is for your son. Your love for him is clear.

  2. rockinnavywife says:

    Sometimes the only way to go up, is to really hit bottom, as heartbreaking as it is…. I really loved what you said here though:”…one of the hardest things I’ve done to let him take responsibility for success or failure…” You were refering to school, but honestly, this is a very hard lesson I had to learn in life (as an adoptee that struggled with school). Once I was able to internalize that exact lesson, I was able to apply it other relationships. It REALLY helped me weed out the good guys from the bad-news guys in my dating life. Now I’m happily married and in my mid-30′s (and looking to adopt as well, but that’s a topic for another day). I often get comments from other wives, “How do you get your husband to XYZ?” I simply apply that lesson that you mentioned – he’s responsible for his stuff – I’m responsible for mine. It’s so hard to distinquish “helping” someone from “enabling” sometimes… Sounds like you’re getting help and heading the right direction.

    I share this because, well, I finally came around (in my mid 20′s, but still!). Hopefully he will too. (sooner than I did!)

  3. We did peanut butter too … for 6 months until I bailed my daughter out, while still making her accountable as best I could. It was clear she would prefer to eat peanut butter indefinitely as opposed to making any changes. My daughter’s mantra was/is “whatever happens happens” and absolutely NOTHING that we did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say, offered or withheld EVER changed her trajectory. It was maddening. I totally understand where you’re at …

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