I have a teenager who has just entered High School. He is a decent student, but like many kids his age, he struggles with priorities. As a concerned parent, I offer him a lot of advice. Much of it blends into the constant symphony of parental noise that he has endured for the past fourteen years. However, I did have one conversation that stands out as my only successful conversation to date regarding his priorities.
My son was worried about an upcoming test, and he expressed his fear that he might not do well. He still had plenty of time to study, but his fear had not motivated him to action at that point. Instead, he focused on what could go wrong. My initial thought was to say what I always say is that he needed to start putting in the work now so that he wouldn't be slammed at the last minute. For some reason though, I had the presence of mind to know that this line of support was not going to work. I suppose that instinct came from the fact that we have had this same discussion at least a dozen times and it always ends up with an eye roll followed by some phrase that equates to "yeah dad, I know." So I decided not to do that dance this time and instead I started to ask a few questions starting with the word Why.
It went something like this:
Why are you worried about this test?
I am not sure if I will do well on it.
Why are you worried about doing well on this test?
Because I want a good grade.
Why do you want to get a good grade?
I don't know, because I want a good grade?
What does it mean to you if you get a good grade?
It means that I get a good grade.
Why does that matter?
Because I want to do well in school
Why do you want to do well in school?
Then he was stumped. I think the most I could get out of him was that he wanted to do well in school so he wouldn't get in trouble. It was then that I realized that he had no concept of what school meant to him. He felt like it was something that he had to do well because of an external need to please me, his father, or his mother or to simply avoid getting in trouble. He had no concept of the opportunities that doing well in school would offer him.
After that realization, I pressed him to think more about what doing well in school meant. He couldn't articulate anything meaningful beyond what he felt he should say. So I asked if I could help him out and he agreed. I said that maybe you would like to do well in school so that you could enjoy more opportunities in life. Doing well in school would help you to have choices. I then asked him if he would like to have a lot of options in life and he agreed. I then asked him about some long-term goals. He wants to be a baseball player, so I shifted the conversation from grades to practice. I asked him what choices could he make today that would help him become a better baseball player. He said that he could choose to practice swinging more during the day and spend less time watching YouTube. I said why would you do that? He responded by saying that it would help him to become a better baseball player. Then we went back to grades again, and I asked "Why do you want to get a good grade?" and he responded that maybe it would lead to more options in life.
Finally, we ended the conversation, and my son thanked me. That was the real epiphany here. This conversation did not magically transform my son into a stellar achiever, and yes we still talk about priorities. However, it was the first time that we had a conversation about anything relating to school that he thanked me for having.
This inspired me to think about how I could help my son to start thinking about the meaning of the choices that he makes on a daily basis. He demonstrated to me that he does not understand the relationship between the actions he takes and the long-term consequences that result. He doesn't know how to set a meaningful goal and achieve it. Instead, he follows some predetermined metric of success and uses that to validate the choices he makes when in reality a good grade is not the reason to put in the work. In fact when parents work with their kids to grow a growth mindset, one learns that praise for the result (in this case the grade) is shown to be detrimental to long-term success. If one does not get the grade that they worked for, then one is more likely to give up. That is why I advocate that teens begin journaling. It is essential that teens take notice of the daily choices that they make and how it affects their long-term progress. Journaling about their goals and documenting progress takes them on a developmental journey to achieve their goals through the identification of wins, losses, and momentum towards their big hairy audacious goal! This is done by revisiting progress daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and beyond. Then they can look back and see how those daily choices add up to something significant.
First and foremost is for them to learn what a meaningful goal is to them. We have built a journal that teaches them the difference between an arbitrary goal which is really just a success metric called a grade and a goal that is meaningful to the individual creating it. We move past the grade and demonstrate how that is just a means to an end of something much more fulfilling.