My 13-year-old son lies about his school work. When he wants to get out of doing homework, he says he doesn't have any or that he did it in school. When I look online to see if he is caught up, he tells me his teachers don't update the homework website. And if they email me about missing assignments, he tells me that they lost them. This has gone on for months and even though we have met with his teachers, he is not doing better. Do you have any advice other than lecturing or punishing him, which don't work?
In my book, I ask parents to think about homework in this way: Imagine that I get to choose your profession, and I've decided it will be doing taxes. You'll do taxes five days a week from eight in the morning till three in the afternoon, and then you'll do more tax work in the evening to "improve your skills."
If you hesitate, argue or try to trick me into believing you don't have any extra tax practice at the end of your long day, I will scold you for not having a good attitude. If you complain about your tax work, I will lecture you and shame you if I don't think you're doing your best.
Imagine how it feels to be a 13-year-old juggling hormones, complicated social relationships and pressure from disappointed teachers and parents. Now consider the many reasons it might make sense for your 13-year-old to attempt to trick you into believing that he has no homework.
If your son can talk himself into believing that there's even a slim chance that he can buy himself relief from the stress of focused work after school, he may throw caution to the wind and tell you he has no homework -- even at the expense of losing your trust and compromising his integrity by lying.
To be clear: I'm not suggesting that your son should be dishonest with you about his school work. But it will better position you to help him if you try to understand what is fueling his troublesome behavior, which will require imagining the situation from his perspective and then sitting down together for a heart-to-heart talk.
Prepare to have a conversation with your son over the weekend (not after school, when you're trying to get him to confess to having homework.) Do something to connect; go on a hike, bake a pie or play a card game. If you want to create genuine receptivity in your son -- which will be essential if you want to influence him to change his behavior -- you will need to start be connecting with him in a friendly way.
After spending some enjoyable time together, say something like, "Honey, there's something I'd like to talk with you about. Is now a good time?" Make sure he says, "Sure", or "OK" before you proceed. If he is resistant to talking, look for another time rather than forcing the issue. This may leave him a little perplexed (why isn't mom trying to make me talk?) but that's fine.
If he does agree to talk, bring up your concerns in a way that makes it clear that you're on his side. "I know how awful it is to face more school work at the end of a long day. I'm guessing it doesn't feel good to lie to me about whether you have homework, not to mention the fights we have when I find out! And I'm thinking you may be under a lot of pressure these days with everything. How can I help?"
This kind of opening will help your son let down his guard and hopefully open him up to exploring what's really going on, encouraging him to work with you to change his behavior.
You can try to control your son, taking away things he cares about or threatening to remove privileges, but as you have discovered, this may simply make him become more sneaky.
It is only when parents consider the why behind a child's upsetting behavior and then join with their child in a way that fosters safety and the sense that we're on their side that we can address their problems with them in a way that is clean and effective.
Best of luck!
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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