With my oldest one, and I do pity firstborns because things are usually awkward and untried with them, so they have to cope with experimental parenting as well as their own issues, I tried to be fairly clinical. I managed to avoid using charts or illustrations, and, eventually, I handed off to my husband. Being a man of few words, he raised one finger in the air wisely, opened his mouth, stalled while thinking for a minute or so, and then blurted out, “Let me know if you need any condoms.” Spawn’s brains caught fire and he had to smother the flames by putting a pillow over his head and squeaking a lot. Maybe he was laughing; I know I was. Hubs looked sheepish, shrugged, and left the room, figuring he’d done his fatherly duty. I suppose, if one is of a pithy type, he had.
Anyway, The Talk is not That talk. The Talk goes more like this:
Me: I need to talk with you about your performance in school.
Subject Juvenile (hereinafter SJ): You mean my grades, don’t you?
Me: Yes and no.
SJ: That means ‘yes’.
Me: Don’t distract me. I’m concerned that you are not working at your best level of performance.
SJ: Because I got a B? Geez, you always want me to be perfect.
Me: No, not because you got a B. I don’t care about Bs. What I care about is that I see you doing a lot of self-sabotaging and not turning in your best work, and that concerns me.
SJ: Because you want me to be perfect and have straight A’s and not have a life!
Me: No, those are not my standards, nor are they requirements. Grades are A reflection of performance, but they are not the only gauge of performance. What I’m worried about is that you are not developing academic diligence, and that is going to bite you on the behind in college. I am also concerned that you don’t want to put in your best effort just for the sake of doing so.
SJ: Why should I if I can get A’s from doing papers the night before or even if I don’t study, or if the teachers keep putting the due dates back? Why should I stress out over stuff like that if I can get good grades without working hard?
Me: Because this is not about grades, it’s about the pursuit of excellence for its own sake and for your sake in understanding what you can do when you really put your mind and effort into it, and for you to understand what you need in order to really do your best work. The end result of doing that, at this point in your life, MIGHT be a good grade and probably would be, but you know from past experience with me that if I see you putting in the time and putting in the thought and paying attention to what you are doing, I really don’t care what kind of a grade you get. Excellence has been diligently pursued, and that’s the point. If I think your teacher is being unfair or arbitrary, I’ll talk to them, but if I’m happy with your behavior, I have made a point to say so when that happens, and you know that.
SJ: So, if I work really hard on this term paper, and it “shows” to you, but I still get a B or a C on it, you don’t care.
Me: Mostly, no. If I think your teacher was grading improperly, I’ll say something and you can decide to take it up with the teacher or to have me do so if you wish. If you get a C, my first thought would be that, given you worked to your best ability, something went missing – maybe the teacher thought they specified something and didn’t, or maybe you forgot to do a specific something. But neither one of those things is going to make me think you did a slapdash job or sloughed off.
SJ: And, even if I can get A's without studying, you still think I should study?
Me: Yep. As you progress through school and into college and from there into the working world, you are going to, increasingly, need to develop your OWN standards which are as high or higher than those of your teachers, professors, and bosses. Those standards may be in different areas, with different goals, or they might be the same, but I think you need the practice in a) setting high standards for yourself, b) working diligently towards those standards, and c) understanding what it means to reach them or how to handle not reaching them as well. There will also be times when you may need to set your standards a little lower because you have other things that are more demanding that take precedence. All of that requires practice and awareness.
SJ: So, you’re saying that it’s OK to lower my standards sometimes?
Me: Yes, judiciously. Look, everyone has some point in time where their load is too heavy or too demanding and they really cannot put all their best effort towards everything – there aren’t enough hours in the day, their health is bad, they are having real trouble in some other area and need to put more attention towards fixing that – stuff like that. It’s called “prioritizing”.
SJ: Why should I “prioritize” schoolwork? Maybe I’m “prioritizing” my friendships.
Me: We both know that’s code for “I don’t wanna do it.”
Me: Straight out, my experience with you and your work is that you have little experience in pursuing excellence for its own sake or for the sake of learning your own needs in achieving excellent results, you have minimal experience in understanding your time requirements, and you don’t really understand how to maximize your resources to your best advantage to achieve an outstanding result that YOU can be proud of. I’ve watched you put forth minimal to moderate effort in school for years now, and get praise and good grades for working far beneath your abilities. I’ve seen you look smug and disappointed at the same time, and I’ve seen what it’s done and is doing to your character. It is one of the things that has truly angered me about your schooling – that your teachers and peers reward you for putting so little effort into your work.
You are now hitting the wall in terms of not being able to achieve the results you are accustomed to with the same minimal effort, and you are getting angry and resentful and loud and difficult to live with, and that has to stop. And all of that is happening because you know that you are capable of doing better and you are disappointed in yourself for not doing better, right?
Me: So, rather than standing by, as I have been doing, biting my tongue, I’m stepping in now and telling you that things need to change, that you need to start learning academic rigor, self-discipline, set high standards for yourself, and learn the skills you need to achieve those results; that you need to learn how to pursue excellence so that you can be proud of what you create and achieve instead of resentful that it isn’t as easy as it used to be.
SJ: OK, I get it. … Are you mad at me?
Me: Not really. You haven’t been challenged to be your best outside of this house before this, so you have no experience in dealing with such a challenge. It’s very hard for me to tell someone who’s getting straight A's that they’re not working hard enough because how much harder can you work? Where are the rewards for doing so? I understand that. Things are different this year, and I’ve stood back to see how you’d react and given you time to learn on your own.
I still expect you to learn on your own – I’m just telling you that I see this problem and I expect you to handle it. It’s a tough call for a parent to make – if I speak up, am I interfering or am I doing the right thing. I’m not even sure myself. I just know that I can’t continue to sit by and listen to your anger and let you be hard to live with because you are frustrated – that’s hard on me and the other family members. You need to fix it, and this is my perspective on what’s going on.
SJ: It’s really not about the grades, is it?
Me: Remember “Skills for Adolescence”? Did I ride you like a donkey to excel in that class, or did I agree that it was a waste of your time and set some minimum grade standards?
Me: If you need to ask me for resource material or websites or advice, you can, but I’ve said my piece.
SJ: OK. Thanks. I think I understand better now what you’ve been telling me all these years, I just didn’t get it before because… I guess I didn’t see the reason for it before.
Me: OK. You do know that one way or the other, whether you decide to make changes or not, I love you just the same, right?
I still don’t know if speaking up is the right choice, and I don’t know if I’ve done it well or really remarkably badly. I am seeing some changes, mostly for the positive now, but that could be short term. I don’t know. I want my kids to be happy in their adult lives; I want them to understand how well they can do when they try, how to prioritize, how to forgive themselves when they don’t do well, and how to keep trying. I want them to be proud of themselves, knowing they’ve done a good job, even if no one else ever acknowledges it, regardless of whether it’s a business plan, a doghouse, or a dinner for four. I want them to believe in themselves, to test themselves, and to learn to succeed to their own standards. And I don’t know if I’ve pushed them forward or under the damned Mommy bus. (sigh)
Meanwhile, it’s time to go tutor and do laundry and reassure the dog that the thunder is not going to come inside the house and eat him up. And if I’ve really screwed things up, maybe I at least managed to teach them to forgive their mom.