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Dec-01-2009 14:30printcomments

A Dad, His Son, and D's and F's

Will he turn it around before he’s 18? I hope so. Is there more I should be doing?


(WASHINGTON D.C.) - What parent hasn’t dreaded report card time, especially when a child is underperforming? How do two kids, born of the same genetic material, turn out so differently when it comes to school performance and their work ethic?

When is it wrong if the “problem” child gets more attention than the one who gets his work done and maintains good grades? These are questions most households face and we are definitely in the middle of them right now.

My older son, Will, is multi-talented when it comes to music and disinterested when it comes to school. He plays several instruments and is almost a walking encyclopedia of contemporary music and even knows quite a bit about music from previous generations. He’s also multi-talented at fooling me about his school-work, even though he’s clear the truth about his grades will always surface.

I’m told that teenage brains aren’t fully developed and that rational thought doesn’t actually enter their heads until their 20’s. Okay (heavy sarcasm now intended), that excuses his excuses and, therefore, I’ll just let him continue to fail some classes, do sloppy work all around, and prioritize his social life over school. He also knows that a “B” average is necessary for him to be allowed to drive or even get his driver’s permit. Just after his 16th birthday I’ve learned he’s failing English.

English! His own language. I know “English” isn’t a class about learning to speak the language, but is about learning grammar and how to write. His dad is a writer, but will he come to me for help? Nah, he can get the “F” all by himself. Now, I’m sure you’re sensing a little anger and attitude coming from your erstwhile columnist. That’s because I am angry and frustrated.

This is where the contrast between siblings is so stark. His younger brother thrives on the discipline of school and homework. He requires no supervision. In fact, he often requires persuasion to skip school for a special occasion or trip that we might have planned. He’s actually afraid of his teachers. What a quaint idea in our age where some teachers are more afraid of their students and their parents. But, too much of the household attention is focused on his brother and that just isn’t fair to David, who is doing so well in school.

I know that we have only limited control of our kids’ behavior, especially as they enter fantasyland--the teen years. I’m reminded of a good friend who went through this sort of problem with his older son. At one point, they removed everything from his room--computer, books, games, pictures, literally everything! All that was left was a bed on the floor. His beloved portable devices, cell-phone, computer, etc. were all removed. Did he change? Nope. He was more stubborn than his parents, who eventually returned most of his stuff.

This is a loving nuclear family in which mom and dad are present, involved, and care deeply for their two children. Their son eventually rebelled further and they had to send him to a wilderness rehab camp where he partially turned around. My friend says the most important lesson his son learned was an awareness of the consequences of his actions on others--a great lesson for most teens.

Now, in his middle 20’s, this young man is living on his own and supporting himself. He’s still searching for fulfillment of his career passion, and has kept the same job for a while now in that field, though not making the kind of money he’d hoped for. That passion has been consistent for a long time, as has his passion for regularly smoking marijuana. His parents believe that this is their son’s way of self-medicating his inherent personality issues.

These parents still beat themselves up over what they might have done differently. I know them well and I know their son was destined to go his own way. He’s smart, still has his head on his shoulders, has never had a problem with the law, and may pull out of this successfully, though it will never replace all the lost and graying hairs on my friend’s head. Their biggest frustration, much like mine, is knowing that their son has all the tools and all the ability, but isn’t living up to his potential.

My son respects me. I support his extraordinary musical talents, but he will suffer consequences for his recent deceptions about school. His room won’t be emptied, but his computer is now available on an “as needed” basis as I have his keyboard and mouse. His social life is limited and he’s partially grounded, while I’m continuing to support his band practices and music lessons. While his attitude reflects irritation, he also still talks to me and hasn’t resisted a single “consequence” as he does know he’s messed up. As we say in my men’s group, he’s “owned” his part in this.

Will he turn it around before he’s 18? I hope so. Is there more I should be doing? I’m still discussing that with my wife, my men’s group, and our therapist, as maybe further therapy might be another option to include in our master plan. I never said it would be easy, being a parent, nor have I ever said that this dad has all the answers.

(Author’s Note: For my international readers, D’s and F’s refer to poor grades in our schools.)


Please visit brucesallan.com to contact Bruce and to enjoy the various features his new Web site offers, including a unique Ask Bruce For Advice section, an archive of his columns, contact info, links to his published work, photo galleries, and reader comments, plus much more.

Bruce Sallan was an award-winning television executive and producer for 25 years. Google him if you really want to know more (e.g. his credits). When his boys were quite young, Bruce left show biz to become a full-time Dad. Shortly thereafter his marriage ended and his wife abandoned their children, leaving the State. Bruce found himself a full-time single Dad, in his late forties, as well as a returning single man to the changed world of cyber-dating. It became a classic “sandwich” situation when he also began to care for his ailing parents. He began writing various blogs on the dating sites he used as well as articles for local publications. The goal of his column, A Dad’s Point-of-View, is to primarily focus on parenting and occasionally other issues from the male perspective. Presently, his column is available in over 75 newspapers and Web sites in the U.S. and internationally. Bruce lives in Agoura, California with his second (and last) wife and two boys, who are 15 and 12. Find Bruce on Facebook and add him as your friend. Just be sure to tell him you saw him here. He can be reached at: bruce@brucesallan.com.

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Ersun Warncke December 3, 2009 2:08 pm (Pacific time)

I am not so unique in my experience. I am just honest. Drug abuse is endemic in our society. The fact that drug laws are only enforced on the lower classes results in a very distorted version of the effects of drugs. The fact that whenever rich people get caught with cocaine or meth they blame their "addiction" in order to avoid responsibility for their actions doesn't help. Cocaine and meth are addictive, but they are mostly lifestyle drugs. For most people they are not really difficult to stop using, even after severe abuse, if a person is both willing and able to change their lifestyle. I have known lots of drug users. Many have normal professional lives, and others have gone into incarceration, the military, or died. The difference is almost across the board their background, family, education, and capability to do something else. People without family support, education, money, and skills are crippled to start with, and drugs make this worse. For people with some combination of the above, a period of drug abuse is a minor setback that is easily overcome.

Oregon Reader December 2, 2009 2:21 pm (Pacific time)

Jesus, Ersun, you are probably one in a thousand, or one in a hundred at the best, for being able to turn your life around. Bruce, I think that kids need to be supported until they are 18. Keep them out of trouble and try to point them in the right direction. I was a straight-A student until 10th grade, when I faltered. I, too, did not care anymore about school. But my dad cared enough to let me be who I was. I did things I am not proud of, but was able to (barely) graduate high school. I tried a lot of crappy jobs before I decided on the value of an education. Bruce, I agree with Ersun on one point. At least your son is still in school. Give him some space and let him know that, even though you are not proud of his behavior, he is still going to get your support. Let him know that you love him and want the best for him. let him know that you know he can do better. Have him take a class during the Summer at Chemeketa(on-line?) to make up for his behavior. But you can't do much more, in my opinion, to make him care if he doesn't want to about English. It was an English class that was the breaking point for me in my high school studies as well. So I can relate. Maybe he has a poor teacher that does not make the subject interesting. Maybe it's too much work (reading?) Regardless, it has already happened. Let him know that you expect more, and then give him back his computer. As long as he is using it properly, he is going to be reading a LOT of information from it, and likely is learning more about many other subjects that he will find more useful than "English". If I were he, I would be shocked that my dad wrote an article about my poor grades... Good luck!

Ersun Warncke December 2, 2009 1:27 am (Pacific time)

I understand the concerns of parents like this, but I would like to raise a couple of additional points. 1) You are trying to force your children to conform to a model of "success." 2) What do you base your model of success on? 3) If your child does not agree with your model of success, what makes you believe you are right and they are wrong? Kids are kids (i.e. really stupid) but, at least in my view, the model of success based on getting good grades, going to college, etc, is looking a bit bankrupt at the moment. If your children are "rebelling" against this model, it might be a good sign. Have you turned on the TV lately? What are the models of success that are being presented to your children, and how valid are they? My experience is a bit different. When I was young, if i wanted something (clothes, shoes, entertainment, food) I often had to get the money for it myself. As a result, my ethic is going to be a bit different from kids whose parents give them everything. That said, in high school my attendance was around 50%. A lot of the time I would only show up to hook up with friends, buy and sell drugs, get together teams to go shoplifting, or to piss off for the day to play video games or watch movies. The first time I talked to my counselor (1 of 4 for 2000 students) was to get them to sign a piece of paper so I could drop out and get my GED. After leaving high school I went to community college, worked, did a lot of drugs, and sold a lot of drugs. I could never pay my bills for college. At the end of the term I would retail a couple hundred pills to pay my bill so i could register for the next term. Eventually I moved on and finished university. What I can say from my experience is that the most important lessons in life I didn't learn in a classroom: everything has a cost; both hard work and skill are required for success; if it's too good to be true it's not. I also learned the value of knowledge. For me, it is the difference between life and death and between being in a prison and being free. My approach to life has been hard headed. It has its ups and it has its downs. There are many paths that a person can take in life, but they all end the same. If your kids are getting bad grades, or are disinterested in school, consider yourself lucky. They are still in school. They are still alive. They are still talking to you. Remember, your children are a reflection of yourself. They are what you have taught them to be. If you don't like it, you are only looking in the mirror, so assess the blame accordingly.

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