Q: My 14-year-old daughter just doesn’t care about school. She doesn’t complete her work in some of her English subjects. She is having a hard time with the Hebrew subjects too. The Hebrew principal has helped us with our concerns. And she seems to be trying a little harder with them. Today, I got a call from one of her English teachers letting me know that she hasn’t completed any work in class the entire year. I asked the teacher to have her bring it home. She came home with a packet but did not bring the books to do the work. I know that yelling and screaming don’t help, so I decided to talk nicely…well, it didn’t really work. She kept telling me that she doesn’t care, and she hates reading books and doesn’t have to do it. So after she tore up one of the papers, I took her phone away.
How do I help her care about school?
A: Ah, school. So much angst and anxiety about school. Let me begin by validating your pain. It is so, so hard to watch a child struggle, and we want so badly to fix it, and it’s frustrating, upsetting, embarrassing, and annoying. I feel your pain.
The short answer to your question—how do you help her care about school—is: you can’t. You have already seen that yelling and screaming don’t help, and talking nicely, while a fine plan in general, won’t solve the problem, and my wager is that taking her phone away also won’t help, although it will very likely turn her wrath from school to you, making you ineffective in her journey. So if anger, sweetness, and consequences won’t help her care about school, what’s a mom to do?
Are there any other schooling options? Perhaps in your area, or as a plan B, in another city? The most important thing for a teen is to be happy in his or her school. I suggest you even consider schools out of your comfort zone, with the guidance of your rav, if it will meet your child’s needs.
Why do we want our kids to succeed in school? Well, perhaps we want them to go on to higher levels of education, be it yeshiva, seminary or college, so they need to get good grades. We want them to know things for life. We want them to cultivate a good work ethic and learn to manage stress and homework and bad teachers and annoying peers, because they will need this kind of grit to handle jobs and marriages and extended family.
In terms of the first—higher levels of education—they may go on to do those things, or they may not. Those higher levels are not for everyone, and it takes a huge slice of humble pie for a parent to go the atypical route for a child who needs it. It is brave and bold and often the right thing. Not everyone should go away to yeshiva; not everyone should go to college or seminary. Sometimes, a child needs to stay home, go to a specialized school, or go to college later in life. We need to learn to pay attention to what our kid actually needs instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole because that’s what we expected, or that’s what we did (or didn’t get to do) or that’s what their peers are doing.
As far as grit and life skills, it’s quite possible that our children can learn those lessons outside of getting good grades. In fact, often the kids who struggle academically learn a lot more about life than the kids who easily ace the tests. Kids learn these lessons outside of school; at extra-curricular activities; and at home.
In fact, school is a very poor laboratory for life.
In life, we get to choose what we are good at and what we enjoy doing much of the time. We choose our careers, our hobbies and how to organize our schedules. We choose our friends instead of being lumped together with peers just because we were all born on the same calendar year. We choose how much and how often we will socialize, how much we will read and write. Kids in school get no choice in these matters. They are expected to do it all and be good at it all. Read, write, play, socialize—every day.
Furthermore, I think we should all be spending a lot more time and energy developing our kids’ strengths instead of trying to repair their weaknesses. You say your child is not succeeding in school, but what IS she succeeding at? Is she creative? Loves to read? Good with kids? Social? Instead of viewing those as wastes of time vis-a-vis school, look at them as the seeds of her future success, and cultivate them as often and as deeply as possible. Aside from giving your daughter a much-needed self-esteem boost, it will remind you that she is worthy; she is valuable; she is loved; she IS ALREADY a success.
And remember that your daughter is suffering. You are likely focused on your own pain, but remember that your struggling daughter probably feels low and unworthy. She knows you feel disappointed, and she may be trying to escape that pain by not trying or wasting time. Your love and support will make a tremendous difference in how she views herself.
And this, my friend, is the most important part: when your daughter sees your pride and joy, and your belief in her worthiness as a human being and as a Jew—not primarily as a student—she will shine.
So you probably can’t help her care about school, and you probably can’t help her succeed in school. But you certainly can help her succeed in life. And that is the most important thing.