Dear Hobie & Monk,
My son (a senior in high school) is very bright, but he’s not doing his assignments and he’s failing English and history. He risks not graduating. He wants to go to college and study computer engineering, but I fear he’ll similarly fail to complete assignments and fail (at a very high cost). How can I send him to college with his track record?
– Worried about the cost of failure
Monk: As parents, we do a lot of hoping and expecting. We want the best for our kids, and we appreciate their strengths and limitations. In this case, your bright son is underperforming right when most college-bound kids are stepping up their games. It doesn’t make sense, and you’re worried about him and his future.
But there are many reasons that smart kids fail, and neither of us knows why your son is struggling. That’s why I encourage you to address this confusing and distressing discrepancy between his ability (and educational goals) and behavior. Ask him and listen carefully.
What are his hopes and expectations? Is he concerned about graduating or not graduating? Does he agree that he’s very bright? How does he think and feel about failing grades? Does he have a plan for passing his classes, applying to college and making good grades? Is something else going on?
Although this may be a conversation he would like to avoid — and he may get defensive — do your best to get him talking (and keep listening).
When you have a better appreciation for what’s going on with him, you and your son can discuss ways to get him on track and whether or not college makes sense.
But it’s ultimately up to him. He’s the one who’s going to college. Or not.
Hobie: One of the first things I always recommend when there appears to be a major discrepancy between a student’s abilities and their academic performance is psycho-educational testing. Even though your son is a senior, it’s not too late, and it could be the perfect time to untangle — or at least rule in or out — some of the factors behind his struggles.
Make an appointment with a psychologist who specializes in testing adolescents, who likely will conduct testing sessions with your son (different from the tests he has taken for college applications, like the SAT and/or ACT) and gather a lot of information from him, you and his teachers. The results of this testing can be extremely useful in guiding your conversations and figuring out your next steps.
While Monk is right and there could be all sorts of reasons why your son is failing right now — and you’ll want to consider all of them together — testing will at least provide you with potentially helpful information. And remember: Depending on what you learn about your son’s needs and wants, there are colleges of all kinds and lots of less traditional paths and timelines for getting there and getting through. Best of luck to you both.
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Hobie and Monk are two Alexandria women with husbands, children, dogs, jobs, mortgages, obsessions with impractical shoes, English novels … and Ph.D.s in clinical psychology. Their advice, while fabulous, should not be construed as therapeutic within a doctor-patient context or substituted for the advice of readers’ personal advisors.