Thank you to the parent who asked this important question:

How do I encourage my 16-year son to study harder rather than following along the “reduced” vigor of online learning?

First off, you are not alone.  Many parents are asking the same question about online learning. Kids don’t want to be there and thus they are not studying or just doing the minimum to get by.  So why would kids do this? And this is even smart kids behaving like this.

Human beings are inherently lazy; they are always looking for ways to reduce their workload and procrastinating. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it empowers us to look for easier, more efficient ways to accomplish something to make life easier. Just look at the dishwasher. If we all loved washing dishes no one would have invented a dishwasher.

There are thousands of items invented to make our lives easier. And each time we invent something new to help us, we somehow discover that we need even more and get lazier...I could write a book about it.

On the downside, this innate desire to be even lazier means that given a chance, people will do nothing. Just look at all the people who dream about a retirement where they just sit in the sun everyday. Your son is doing what 90% of all kids are doing---figuring out how to do the least amount of work and still get a good grade. It is only the 10% of kids who are mature enough to realize that they can even get ahead in this pandemic if they wanted to. My 10 year old grandson took a picture of himself looking attentive and then used it instead of going to the zoom class. The teacher never noticed but my daughter wondered why he was missing so much class. So I have to applaud his ingenuity but he missed a lot of class.  He isn’t the slightest bit sad about that. In fact, he is proud of himself and of course everyone else thinks it is hysterically funny.

To work with your son, he needs to (1) be inherently interested in the subject, (2) sufficiently terrorized if he doesn’t work hard, or (3) be mature enough to realize he can use this time to learn even more. The school system uses #2. The system is built on fear: fear of getting a bad grade, fear of the teacher, fear of failing a test, fear of looking stupid in class….the list goes on and on. So when the fear is removed or mitigated, the student only does the minimum to get by.

First thing you should do is have a discussion with your son and acknowledge that the classes are probably boring and that he is not learning as much because he is not putting in enough effort. But it is important not to say “let’s talk” because that usually means that a lecture or some rules are coming. What you want is a two way discussion, not a lecture. Give some examples of why it is important to take advantage of this pandemic time to learn as much as he can.

You need to adapt to the situation. The goal is to collaborate with him, to empathize with him, and  to see what else he might want to do to compensate or expand the learning he is missing. There are many videos on YouTube, virtual trips on Google Arts and Culture  and there is also the new company that I co-founded with my former student Ari Memar called that targets kids age 8 to 14. It is an app to teach kids a variety of interesting and important things while making it game-like. Many of the resources are for younger kids, but there are also resources for older kids.

The goal of Tract is to develop self confidence in kids to pick what they are interested in and to encourage the development of inner-directed learning and creativity. It is called self-directed learning. The kids direct what they are interested in. The opposite of inner-directed learning is other directed learning, which is what the school system uses.  It means basically that the innovation comes from any place but within the child. Have you ever seen kids who are addicted to gaming?  I am sure many parents are aware of this issue. That is an example of self-directed learning that becomes a passion.

We all want to have kids who are self-directed learners because when they are intrinsically interested, they will work with passion and commitment. It is the self-directed learner that has grit to stick with their interest.  

Here are some suggestions from child psychologist Shelja Sen on TED Ideas

1. Avoid these two words: “let’s talk.”

It seems like the most natural way to start a conversation. But when we say “Let’s talk” to our teenagers, alarm bells go off in their brains and the shutters come down, making it pretty much impossible for a meaningful conversation to happen.

2. Ask; don’t tell.

In our anxiety to help them, we’re constantly telling our teenagers how they should talk, perform and behave. It’s far more important for us to ask them instead. Rather than saying, “You need to study — I can see that you’re not studying at all,” it can be more effective to ask, “How is preparing for your exams going?”

3. Respond from your heart.

This one can be tough — for instance, let’s say your teenager shared that she’s not ready for her exam and she’s worried about failing. Your immediate reaction may be to get angry and reprimand her with “I told you that you needed to study harder.” However, what she needs is for you to empathize. Instead, say something like, “This isn’t easy for you, is it?” When we empathize from our hearts, teens won’t feel blamed, shamed or judged, which makes them more likely to open up to us.

4. When you disagree, follow the you-I-we approach.

In all family relationships, there are bound to be conflicts. Teach your kids the subtle art of collaboration by going through these steps together:

  • I listen to You and understand your perspective (even if I do not agree)
  • I share my perspective as a parent (even if you do not agree with it)
  • Then We sort this out together.

For example, let’s say you’re concerned about your son’s excessive use of computers, phones or electronic devices. Okay, you’re more than concerned; you’re mad. But rather than hitting him with a lecture, start by asking, “Can we talk about what’s happening here?” Then listen to him and try to let go of any preconceived ideas or judgements. Show him that you respect him by giving him a chance — without interruptions or interjections from you — to explain himself.

5. Apologize when you goof up.

All parents make mistakes with our children, especially with teenagers, since they’re experts at pressing our buttons. When we say something we regret, the best thing to do is to apologize right away with a simple “I’m sorry for messing up. What can I do to make it better?” Teenagers can be quite forgiving when you’re upfront with them.It is a challenging time for all of us and it seems to get even more challenging as the virus further impacts the world everywhere, the political situation is difficult, and the economy is suffering.  Here are some wise words: “When things are bad, we take comfort in the thought that they could always get worse. And when they are, we find hope in the thought that things are so bad they have to get better.” – Malcolm S. Forbes