June 19, 2014 —

How will our parenting decisions today effect the adults our kids will become tomorrow? Molly Skyar, in open conversation with her mother, Dr. Susan Rutherford, views parenting decisions through a psychologist's perspective.

Question: Our high school-aged son is completely unmotivated to do his work. How can we motivate him?

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD: This sounds like a very difficult yet fairly common family situation. It sounds like this teenager has dug in and made a stand about his attitude toward schoolwork.

There are several approaches the parents might try. They could start with a family meeting and ask him to share his thoughts about what he wants to do with his life after high school. They should strive to make an alliance with him and to end the battles about schoolwork.

If he refuses to talk with his parents, professional therapy is another route they could consider.

MOLLY: This was submitted to our website from a mom in Maryland. She added that they’ve already tried many strategies but he doesn’t seem to have any desire to do better in school.

The parents have tried rewarding good study habits, offering help with organizational habits, and encouraging him to ask them or his teachers for help if he needs it. Nothing has had any effect on his apathetic view toward school. They feel “helpless and at (their) wits end.”

One thing that occurred to me that they could do is to bring him to visit a college campus and take a student-led tour. He might decide that he would like to go there and that it would be worth attending to his schoolwork if he knew that this was the goal.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, that’s a good idea.

MOLLY: It would show him what exists after high school for those who are motivated to get there.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Really this is an excellent idea because it’s so concrete. Kids often have a hard time projecting into the future and showing him the pot of gold at the end of high school could be inspiring.

His parents could also make him get a job during high school and summer vacations. A minimum-wage job could help him understand what life beyond school could be like for those who don't graduate high school.

I don't want to overlook the control issue going on between parents and son, and that’s why I suggested that they make an alliance with him rather than continue the battles. There are some other issues that may be at play here as well. The parents should take a close look at their son’s activities: is there anything else unusual or out of the norm? For example, could there be any alcohol, drug or medicine abuse going on? 

The difficult part for the family will be to recognize that an alliance involves some give and some take from each party. For instance, if the teen doesn't want to do schoolwork that's fine, but he will have to get a job to fill that free time that should have been taken up by schoolwork and school activities. If this is the deal that is struck, then the parents will have to agree to stop nagging him about schoolwork.

Sometimes we see kids who need to experience firsthand the disadvantages of working without a high school or college degree before deciding to apply themselves toward bettering their future. Having to work for spending money can be a good lesson here.

The parents are also within their rights to offer to pay for or help pay for a college education within a certain time frame. If the son cannot motivate himself appropriately to live up to this stipulation, then he would have to fund his education himself at a later date.

Molly Skyar and Dr. Rutherford publish Conversations with My Mother, an online resource for offering practical parenting tips and psychological insight into raising kids. Dr. Rutherford, PsyD, is a Clinical Psychologist in practice for over 30 years. She has degrees from Duke University, New York University and the University of Denver. You can further connect with Molly and her mother on Facebook and follow Molly on Twitter.