My son is an underachiever: Why parent teacher night sucks

It’s parent teacher night; my son is in Year 11. He’s been noticeably solicitous of late, which makes me suspicious: he knows what’s coming. To be honest, I have not enjoyed my eldest child’s parent teacher nights since he left primary school.

All day my mood has been flat; resigned to the disappointment that’s coming.

We stand out the front of the school hall, where all the other parents and kids are gathered. He’s good company, my son: articulate, witty, considerate. He knows how to get along with people. “A people pleaser,” I often call him.  Sometimes it’s to his detriment. Because as a people pleaser, he has a talent for hiding or distracting from the bits that he knows won’t please me. He’s expert at it. He doesn’t face up to his mistakes, he tries to pretend they never happened.

And twice a year at parent teacher night, he is exposed.

It wasn’t always like this

Primary school was a doddle. He’s a nice kid and doesn’t make trouble. Teachers like him, a lot. In primary school, as long as he was  ‘sound’  and occasionally ‘high’, I was happy.

But the blunt transparency of high school reports have been his undoing.

My son is THAT kid. That kid who should do better, but doesn’t. He’s chronically disorganised, he puts in minimal effort and he coasts on a sparkling personality that dazzles with articulate answers in class but comes up short when the time comes to write things down and hand them in. In other words, when the time comes to actually do the work, he doesn’t do it.

He fools most of the people, most of the time … until he doesn’t. And by about Year 8 the jig was up.

When it first showed itself, in Year 8, I was bitterly disappointed

Then I asked myself “What can I fix here?” I couldn’t fix the system, (a system focused mainly on lifting the lowest level and extending the very highest levels but with nothing for the average kid who could do better.)

He thrives under a really good teacher, but I couldn’t guarantee he would always get an exceptional teacher.

I had no option but to try to fix him.

I got my helicopter parent on.

I bought a yearly wall calendar, I drew up a study schedule for exams. I sat with him and did maths, I looked at his essays, I familiarised myself with the online schedule of assignments due and marked them on his calendar.

It lasted about a term.

How do I have the time to manage his deadlines when I have work deadlines of my own?

The flurry of activity dropped off and by Year 9, we were back to square one.

Year 9 parent teacher conference: same again, a little bit worse

We, his parents walked out of the conference said the same things again: try harder, do the work, it’s up to you. Threats, bribery, groundings. The cornerstones of weak, ineffectual parenting.

By Year 10 there was some improvement. But it was a two steps forward one step back kind of situation. English went up, maths went seriously south, geography flat-lined, history was hanging  by a thread, art up, music down.

I reiterated study schedules, I bought another wall calendar, I nagged at regular intervals.

It was tempting at this point to just accept a harder truth: maybe he’s not as smart as I thought he was.

Around that time, I happened to speak to two male friends about school and potential and where life takes you. Both of them were intelligent men who, after some time in the wilderness through their 20s and early 30s, now held down pretty good jobs. Both said they had never performed well at school and both said the roughly same thing:

“Where were my parents in all of this? Why didn’t they come down harder on me?”

To their minds, because they hadn’t done well at school, they had been late bloomers. It had taken them longer to get where they wanted to be. Did I want that for my son? I decided that I didn’t. I didn’t want him to be flailing around through his 20s trying to figure out why he couldn’t get a job that stimulated him.

So I kept up the nagging. I figured that the least I could do was let him know it matters, to me. I was also aware of the old parenting adage: if you tell a kid he’s average, he will be average.

I told him I thought he was smarter than his school marks, but he needed to work harder to get there.

At the end of Year 10 he made his subject choices

We figured this would be the turning point. He dropped maths and took on only the subjects that interested him.

Year 11 began. I tried to keep an eye on things as best I could, (short of actually sitting in his room and reciting study notes to him) because that’s good parenting, right? All term I’ve been saying to him: Have you been doing your homework? Got any assignments you should be doing? Are you all up to date with everything?

Yeah, yeah. He nods. He gives me snippets of things he’s done well at, to put me off the scent. He gives me the impression it’s all going well.

Now here we are again at parent teacher night, Episode 23, Year 11

We move inside the hall and I am handed, “the document.” The one I’ve been dreading all day. The interim report.

I look at the interim report and without wanting to sound overly invested in my son’s schoolwork, I nearly burst into tears. It’s the same thing again. The marks are so appalling (three subjects below 50%) that I can’t help but take it personally.

Then the five minute cattle-call teacher conferences (a veritable speed dating scenario for parents and teachers) where the same things are said again: could do better but doesn’t, doesn’t hand in assignments on time, doesn’t come to lessons prepared.

He has so much potential but continually disappoints everyone who believes him to be better

sad teenager looking down in outdoor

It’s like pushing a barrow of sh** up a hill. And I’ve had four high school years of it.

Why does he not get it?

All those parenting clichés come to mind: After all I’ve done for you, how could you do this to me? Why am I wasting my money on a private education?

In other words, this was all about me. His marks as I saw them, were all about me.

Over the ensuing weeks, it has slowly dawned on me that there is a bigger picture here that I have been missing

I hate parent teacher night because I have made it all about me.

My fear of bad marks, is tied up in all sorts of stuff that has nothing to do with my son.

It’s about my brother, who never did well at school, then floundered around for years making more bad choices. The toll that has taken on my parents has been at times, heartbreaking.

It’s also about my ex-husband who didn’t do well at school and then was so unhappy in a job that was beneath his intellect, that it basically ruined our marriage.

These are my fears. They’re my fears that I’m now projecting onto his future. I’m essentially trying to head his mistakes off at the pass and save him from the pain of failure. But as any parenting expert will tell you, failure is how kids learn.

In a 2012 interview with The Huffington Post, psychologist and author Madeline Levine summarised it perfectly:

“Don’t do for your kid what they can already do. Don’t do for your kid what they can almost do, because that’s where they have those successful failures. Sometimes they make it; sometimes they don’t — but that’s where they learn. And don’t do for your kids out of your needs, not theirs.”

My son can do all the things he needs to do get better marks at school and now it’s up to him to do them.  By holding his hand and drawing up schedules and trying to do it for him, I have done him no favours at all.  I’ve made it about what I want, instead of it being about a drive/ a desire to really do better that comes from him.

And if he doesn’t do what he needs to do, he’ll fail. Maybe he needs to learn that by experiencing it.

It’s the only way he can become a fully functioning adult. I’ve given guidance and I’ve reiterated the core value that this stuff matters.

And he does care about marks. He just seems to be missing the piece where his behaviour, his effort, is responsible for the marks. It’s dawning on me now that it’s probably because he sees school marks as a thing that pleases me, rather than something he needs to do for himself.

So I need to let him find his own way towards that. And part of that may initially be, failure.

But most importantly, if I make my relationship with him all about my anger and my disappointment over school marks, what relationship do we have?

Isn’t it more important to stay connected in a constructive way? Than to position myself as the haranguing nag who makes him do his schoolwork?

A friend who had been through a similar thing with her own son, put it into perfect perspective for me:

“I didn’t want to ruin our relationship over being constantly frustrated and angry over school. I decided to let that go so that we could work on having a good relationship again – one that didn’t involve constant harassment – and one that would, of course, long outlast the aggro of school days.”

He’s nearly 17 now and I think it’s time for him to sink or swim

I’ve showed him what he needs to do, I’ve given him some guidance on how to be better organised, I’ve let him know I think he’s a smart kid. It’s up to him now.

He’s making his choices and I need to let him suffer the consequences and learn from his own mistakes.

But I did buy him another wall calendar.