For the purposes of this essay, allow that everyone has some good qualities. And some that are not so attractive. Pretend further, that you are dating a person who focuses only on your imperfections. “You smell like a bag of farts,” your partner begins. “Your car stinks; you stink; you don’t make enough money; you can barely dress yourself; your wardrobe looks like someone emptied leftover paint cans on you. From the dump.” Your partner goes on: “You cook like you make love.” Your partner pauses for emphasis. “Lousy.”
Were this relationship a wounded animal, you would take it behind the barn and mercifully beat it to death with a shovel. You wouldn’t put up with such a person. Why would you? One of the great things about being an adult is that we get to vote with our feet.
One of the crumby things about being underage is that kids have to make their opinions known in less final ways. Kids can’t “swipe left” and look for more compatible parents. Kids are stuck. If a kid hears, “you are a disappointment; your grades aren’t good enough; you are completely irresponsible just like your good-for-nothing father who is four months behind on his child support” the kid can’t say, “Whoa. It is so inappropriate for you to work out your issues with my dad. This relationship isn’t working. I’m outahere.”
Kids have no “check, please” option. So what can kids do?
Kids fight back in the only ways that are available to them. Their guerrilla warfare ranges from subtle–refusing to help with dishes–to overt–running away, taking benzodiazepines, telling parents to do that which is anatomically impossible. Invariably, powerlessness begets revolution, not compliance.
Do parents heap negativity on kids who don’t do well? Or do kids perform poorly because their parents dump an unrelenting mound of misery on their unprotected psyches? It’s hard to determine the direction of the causal arrow. But I see kids who have given up, who feel that they’re not going to measure up no matter how hard they work. I see kids who don’t see the point in even trying to do well. “A 96? Don’t they give 100s in that school?” had better be communicated with humor and love. The alternative–smacking your child about four points–is no bueno.
I’m all in favor of good grades. All things being equal, I suppose I would wish that my kids understand curriculum, be interested in studying outside of class, and connect with their teachers. But how the sausage is made is critical. Even a stray dog knows if she has been tripped over or kicked. Every child knows why her parents want her to perform well in school.
If parents are basking in reflected glory or are eager to brag to their friends about Junior’s accomplishments, nothing good will come of it. School performance should be a problem to be solved, just like every other developmental milestone. A crying infant at 2:00 a.m. likely needs a cuddle and some reassurance (or possibly a diaper change or a bottle. It’s hard to know. Try all three in turn then start over.) It’s critical for parents to communicate, “We’re going to work this out together. We got this.”
Shared responsibility and problem solving is invariably the correct response. Helping kids figure out what isn’t working, what hurts, how to proceed is what good parenting is all about. Positive, loving, gentle, uplifting remarks are a step in the right direction. Sarcasm and insults not so much. “You’re so dumb you got hit by a parked car” is no way to bring up healthy kids.