My son just started his freshman year in high school this week. I logged into his school’s portal, and it turns out he was supposed to read two “summer reading” books by the time school started. Not only did he not read either book, he didn’t even mention the assignment! He has always struggled with reading, but he’s had tutors and extra help… College applications will be here before we know it, and grades are so important! He’s almost an adult, shouldn’t he be more responsible at this age? How can I motivate him to finally try harder in his literature courses?
Mother-to-mother: There always seemed to be a certain class or subject in school that everyone loathed. For me, it was math. Actually, who am I kidding? It’s still math. I am a fully grown woman on the brink of turning thirty and I legitimately have a recurring ̶d̶r̶e̶a̶m̶ nightmare that I’m back in high school and I can’t graduate because I have failed math class. I’m the friend at the table that pulls out her phone (not to be rude and check Facebook) but to quickly use the calculator app to figure out the correct tip amount… Because multiplying a number by 20% in my head would be the same as asking me to tell the waiter “Goodbye, hope you have a nice day!” in Mandarin. Sorry, just can’t do it.
These pictures pretty much sum up my childhood and adult experiences with math:
It didn’t matter what my parents tried, extra math booklets, tutors, ̶H̶E̶L̶L̶ Kumon… I just could not seem to grasp the principles of math beyond the basics. It was honestly a large source of embarrassment for me throughout my schooling. I came to the conclusion that I must just be dumb when it came to anything involving math.
Interestingly enough, as my educational pursuits continued to advance higher, so did my GPA. How does it make sense that I graduated high school with a 3.0 GPA, college with 3.4 GPA and grad school with a 3.9 GPA? You would think that it would be completely the reverse. Did I finally “grow up” and learn to “buckle down?” Maybe. But it’s also no coincidence that as my education continued, it became more and more specific to what I was interested in and excelled at.
While I unfortunately can’t tell through the computer if your son is going through something similar to my math-woes (or is truly just flat out procrastinating), I can at least speak to what he might be experiencing in terms of typical teenage cognitive development, as well as a few other developmental tidbits.
On the developmental side of things: According to Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, your son falls under the “formal operational” stage. Typically kids around your son’s age begin to have the potential to grasp more abstract concepts, as well as continuing to fine tune their maturing moral reasoning skills. The answer to your question, “shouldn’t he be more responsible at this age?” completely depends on his own personal rate of development. In fact, a research study found that the average male brain does not fully develop until they reach 25 years of age, and the average female brain does not fully develop until 21 years of age. When speaking in terms of emotional maturity, a different research study found that typically men are fully developed emotionally at 43 years old, and women at 32 years old. You can read more about these studies here.
Now, just because these studies found that peak emotional and brain maturation typically doesn’t happen until later in our lives does not mean teens shouldn’t have to strive to be responsible adults. The research just might help to place one more piece in the puzzle of “why isn’t my teenager more responsible for X?” As for how to help with motivation… To help try to motivate someone, we have to try to understand why they are unmotivated in the first place. This is where understanding how stress can affect children may help. Have you ever felt so overwhelmed and stressed out by everything that you need to do, that you end up surfing the internet or watching TV? According to Robert Sapolsky’s Why Don’t Zebras Get Ulcers?, stress is defined as, “one’s perception of threats and the belief in their ability to manage it.” If your son believes that the threat (summer reading assignment) is larger than he can manage, his coping mechanism (avoidance, or procrastination) may have kicked in. Motivation may come forth from the alleviation of stress. You and your son will have to figure out together what coping mechanisms will work best for him during future stressful situations.
Last but not least, I want to touch on Dr. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner’s theory states that a human’s intellect and way in which they best understand the world is comprised of a unique blend of different strengths and intelligences. Each person’s unique combination can aid in helping to decipher what modalities they can learn best from. According to Gardner, the following are the seven intelligence modalities :
Gardner later added an eighth intelligence, defined below:
Naturalistic: the ability to recognize and identify items in nature such as animals, flora/fauna and then use those items in a productive manner (i.e. chef, botanist, farmer, hunter, biological sciences)
In short, everyone has different intellectual strengths. If you can work toward identifying your child’s combination of intelligences, this may be the key to helping them find the best path to educational success- whether that is helping them learn through different techniques, or helping them excel in their different area(s) of strength.