Q. My son’s last report card was absolutely horrendous. He is in sixth grade, and his grades dropped in almost every subject. When my husband and I sat down to speak with him, he blamed the teachers, the school, and even his friends. There was no remorse and he refused to take any of the blame. We’re at a loss. He’s always been a strong student, and we’re shocked not only by his grades, but also by his nonchalant attitude. What should our response be?
A. Something seems off about this question. As I’ve repeated many times, I am not a psychologist or the son of a psychologist (although my father is awesome). However, it seems odd that you didn’t notice any changes in your son before this report card came. Usually, when a boy starts slumping in school, parents notice a change in his attitude. Nothing seemed different?
Furthermore, if he has always done well, why didn’t the school notify you that there was a problem? You mentioned he dropped in almost every subject; well, that’s a pretty big warning sign. You didn’t get a phone call from the school or even a teacher? I completely understand that the school probably has a lot going on, but if they didn’t contact you at all during the semester, something is wrong.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s do some detective work. Without knowing your son, it’s really hard to give a helpful answer, but I can certainly give some suggestions. The items below are just ideas. You and your husband need to discuss a plan of action before sitting down with your son. As my grandfather used to tell me, a fool speaks and then thinks about the consequences. A smart person thinks about the consequences and then speaks.
(1) I know hindsight is 20/20, but parents should always be on the lookout for mood swings or any other significant changes. If your child stops caring about his schoolwork or becomes withdrawn, you need to try and figure out what’s wrong right away. It might just be hormones, but it’s a good idea to speak with his doctor, just in case.
(2) A sixth-grade boy is usually mature enough to have a serious conversation. Both parents should sit down with him to discuss this situation. However, if either parent will become overly emotional or angry, that parent might want to sit this one out.
(3) There are two separate issues that you will be discussing: the grades and the fact that his attitude has changed. Even though they might be connected, you should not lump them together.
(4) Call your son into the room and begin the discussion. No long soliloquies. This isn’t a mussar vaad. Begin on a positive note: “First of all, Mommy and I are super-impressed by your davening.”
(5) Next, show him the report card. Print a copy; don’t use a laptop or iPad to show him. Give him a minute to review it, and then begin the discussion. “This is unacceptable. You’re a smart boy and have always done well. We are very disappointed in these grades and want to make sure that this won’t happen again.”
(6) If he looks defiant (which makes sense according to what you’ve written), that’s fine. Your next statement is, “Let’s discuss the consequences of your poor grades.” That elicits a reaction from most children. He’ll probably get a bit nervous. At this time, I would say, “We came up with a consequence, but we think it might be a bit harsh.” That’ll really get him nervous.
(7) He’s going to want to know what the consequence is, but you’re not telling him. You simply say, “On the other hand, maybe we don’t need a consequence right now. If you can assure us that you will take the work seriously for the next term, we can overlook this occurrence.”
(8) Now let him talk. Hopefully, the floodgates will open, and he’ll talk to you about everything. If not, you might need to take this to the next level and involve a professional.
In either case, there is one thing you need to keep in mind. I’ve found that in many cases, children whose grades take a nosedive are usually having some sort of emotional crisis. It could be a friend issue or a problem with a rebbe or teacher. Before coming down too hard on him, see if you can ascertain what’s going on. You can ask his rebbe or teacher, and even try to figure out if his social life has changed.
I would like to reiterate that the above “conversation” is just a general idea of how one can go about dealing with this situation. There are many variables that would warrant changing the plan of action. If you are unsure about the proper course of action, it’s a great idea to ask your rav.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser. To sign up for the weekly e‑mails and read the comments, visit YidParenting.com.