“You don’t understand — this kid doesn’t care about anything!! I tell him there are consequences for his bad grades: he doesn’t care. I offer him rewards for good grades: he doesn’t care. I try to let him go through the natural consequences, and still nothing! How do I make him care about his grades, and get him to realize how important school is before it’s too late?”
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I talk with parents quite frequently about this topic, here on Empowering Parents, in our Facebook community, and through our 1-on-1 Coaching service. It’s not just related to school, either. The area of focus could be anything from picking up wet towels off the floor to engaging in risky, illegal behavior. It certainly is frustrating when you are more motivated to have your child’s responsibilities met than your child is to meet them. Here’s the thing, though: ultimately, you can’t “make” anyone (including your own child) care about anything, and it’s going to be incredibly frustrating for everyone if that is your sole focus.
Let me illustrate this with a lighter example from my own life. When I first met my partner, Markus, he was working as a sternman on a lobster boat. He has spent the majority of the time we have known each other earning a living by working on boats, catching lobsters, crabs, and scallops, depending on the season. Although by no means a morning person, he woke up early each day in order to get to the dock before dawn to row the dinghy carrying the boat captain and himself out to the boat to haul traps all day. Even after spending all day hauling traps, filling bait bags and measuring and banding lobsters, he frequently wanted to walk down to the town docks after we both finished work so we could fish together. On the weekends, one of his favorite pastimes is taking a fishing reel (or an ice auger and traps), some bait and a cooler to spend a few hours (or the whole day) casting a line.
I, on the other hand, cannot stand fishing. Personally, I think it is one of the most boring ways that someone could choose to pass the time. Markus really tried to pique my interest during the initial stages of our relationship, and I really tried to find a way to love fishing. Markus bought me a brand new fishing reel, a fishing license, and all sorts of bobbers, weights and lures. He even offered to take me out with him on the boat for the day. I agreed multiple times to go fishing with him, even going to a smelt shack in the middle of the night so we could “hit the tide” at the right time. Despite both of our efforts, no matter how much both of us tried, I just couldn’t get into fishing. We discovered that this issue was causing resentment to build in our relationship. Markus was becoming frustrated by my continued lack of interest in an activity he truly values and wanted us to share in. Mine stemmed from the fact that he apparently couldn’t just “drop it,” and accept the fact that fishing is probably not going to be an activity that we will bond over. His continued insistence that I go fishing with him was having the opposite effect he desired, and was actually making me dislike it even more! Ultimately, we resolved this issue with compromise (I go with him, and bring a book instead of a fishing reel) and by “agreeing to disagree” (he goes fishing, and I do something else instead).
Now, I realize that my lack of interest in fishing does not have the same potential for negative outcomes later on in my life as compared to lack of interest in schoolwork, or engaging in risky, illegal behavior, or any other behavior which you are trying to get your child to care about. The truth is, there are similarities in how you can handle this type of situation. Begin by recognizing that this is not a personal attack against you, even if it might feel that way. As a parent, you have had a primary role in imparting your morals and values, and you are one of the biggest influences in your child’s life. Even so, your child is separate from you, and it is up to each person to determine one’s own morals, values and priorities. Even though your child might not place the same importance on completing certain tasks, you will be most effective if you do your best not to personalize what s/he is doing, or to see it as a rejection of your parenting.
In addition, remember that it is normal for teenagers to appear to reject what their parents value. This is called “individuation,” a part of their development process in which teens attempt to define themselves as an individual separate from the family unit, especially parents. Many times what this looks like is teens overtly rejecting what the parents value; basically, “I’m me because I’m not you.” Again, this is not personal, and you will be most effective in stepping away from the power struggle over trying to set these values for your teen.
Keep in mind that while you cannot “make” your child care about anything, you do have the power to hold them accountable for their choices, if appropriate. You might consider letting your child experience the natural consequences of their actions, or giving a task-oriented, time-limited consequence. Remember that just because the consequence doesn’t seem to impact your child’s attitude or behavior right away, that doesn’t mean that it’s not an effective consequence. Look at it this way: some people still continue to speed, even after being pulled over and handed a ticket. That doesn’t mean that the highway patrol will cease pulling people over and giving tickets.
One final note: people, especially kids and teens, are dynamic and constantly changing. James Lehman reminds us that “parents are not the only change agent in a child’s life.” The way that your child is behaving right now does not necessarily determine how he or she will act in the future, or what will interest him or her. You never know how someone will change.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll even enjoy fishing one of these days!