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Got a Smart Teenager (or Child) With Bad Grades?

How to Inspire, Not Nag
smart teenager bad grades

Parents are usually pretty frustrated when they describe their promising, smart teenager (or child) with bad grades. I mean if your child is so smart, why don’t their grades reflect it?

Maybe this scene is familiar. Dinner is winding down and you ask your child if they have any homework. “I don’t know,” she says. You try to gently ask, “How can you not know?” She snaps, “I don’t really pay attention or care about homework.” And how do you respond to that!? 

Or maybe you’ve heard yourself saying something like this:

  • “My child is not living up to his potential!” 
  • “Her grades are tanking!” 
  • “My child can’t stay off social media when it’s time to do homework.”

Does this challenge regarding kids’ grades sound familiar? “How can I get my child to care about their grades and school?” is on lots of parents’ minds these days!

What role do parents have in their kids’ grades? 

When it comes to school, grades, and performance, there is often a minefield of conflict over expectations. The explosions in that minefield lead to undercurrents of anxiety for both parents and kids, as both try to figure out how to tiptoe to avoid more conflict. Parents often believe it’s their responsibility to motivate their kids to care about their grades. 

But what if there was a better way to inspire change in your kids? What if that way was to change your own attitude and approach?

Crazily (or not), research shows that some of the best change happens in kids when their parents work more on themselves. If you’ve been asking some variation of the question, “How do I get my child to ________,” try a shift to, “How can I help my child to __________, as my primary goal is to walk in the Spirit?”  

Read on to learn how one mother worked on herself and saw a huge change in her smart teenager with bad grades.

One mom’s story of transformation 

Misty anxiously told me about her seventh-grade daughter, Gigi.

“Her grades are tanking! She’s sassy and defiant most of the time! I know she is capable of so much more, but she won’t dig in and live up to her potential. I check her grades every day. I’ve withheld privileges, created charts, offered rewards, and constantly reminded her. But it keeps getting worse. Our fights get louder by the day!”

When you’re constantly fighting with kids who don’t live up to their potential, we suggest a new approach, a new fight: the fight of faith to walk in the “fruit of the Spirit.

Instead of nagging about grades, try encouragement

Consider this rendering of Galatians 5:22-26 when applied specifically to this issue (adapted from The Message):

When we address kids’ challenges God’s way, He brings things like affection, joy, and serenity. We develop a sense of compassion. We find ourselves not needing to force our way in life, able to direct our energies wisely. Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads, but work out its implications in every detail of encouraging our children.

When I first introduced this approach to Misty she was not convinced. “Yes, I get that I’m supposed to be gentle and loving and all that, but it’s in her best interest that I’m firm on this, right? I mean, aren’t I supposed to be the parent?”

A new look at firm parenting

My answer: “Yes! You are supposed to be firm. Yes! You are the parent. But being a parent isn’t about anxiously controlling your child. It’s about learning to firmly come alongside our kids as a model of the Holy Spirit – in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. From this place, we can operate not in fear but in confidence. This is the firmness your daughter needs.”

As we discussed the notion of firmly parenting “by the means of the spirit” (see Galatians 5:16), Misty’s countenance changed. Right then and there she was forming a new resolve. I could see it, so I asked, “What’s going on? You’re sitting taller and seem purposeful about something.”

“I’ve decided to tell Gigi that I’m not checking her grades until the end of the quarter. This is her life, it’s her grades, and it’s not a reflection on me.” Misty sighed. “I already like how this feels.” She left with a bounce in her step.

Want to learn more about this topic? Check out our podcast, “How to Raise a Responsible Student (Who Has a Social Life)”

Parenting with a new attitude

Parents don’t often respond this way. I knew that even with this new attitude change Misty might need a few more practical ideas to help Gigi feel motivated, so I wondered how long her optimism would last.

Two weeks later Misty returned. She confidently reported,

God is changing me, and I have a relationship with my daughter again! I asked for forgiveness for so much nagging and told her my plan. I said that if she wants to fail she can, and I calmly named the privileges she’d lose if she did. I don’t think she believed I was for real. 

The next morning, instead of asking her about homework like usual, I just looked at her with a smile and told her I loved her and to have a great day. She came home irritated. Instead of anxiously asking, “What’s wrong?” like usual, I gently asked if she wanted to talk. She said, “No,” and scurried off. I figured she was on her phone doing her social media things, but when I passed her room she was on her bed doing homework. I left her alone.

I felt hope again. I felt free.

Then it dawned on me. In the absence of my energy about her homework, Gigi felt free too. Now the pressure was about her homework instead of about her anxious, nagging mom. In the days since, things have started getting back to normal. She asks for help and has opened up about her discouragement. There are still issues I don’t quite know how to address with her, but she has totally taken responsibility (like the old days) for her homework. And we can talk again. I’m so hopeful that the momentum has changed.”

By the time Misty spent a few more weeks with these ideas she reported: 

“Gigi would now say I am much more flexible, relaxed, and less intense. I’ve learned to see her more through God’s eyes of grace, and I tell her every day, ‘You are a child of the King! Don’t you forget it!’ And Gigi is doing much better. Still lots of little struggles, but normal stuff.”

Changed hearts, better grades

If your smart child comes home with bad grades, try letting go of the usual battle and fight a new fight: the fight of faith to walk by the Fruit of the Spirit as you impart the message, “You are Called and Capable”. 

Author’s note: We are not suggesting that not checking your child’s grades is always the “right” method. For other practical ideas for homework challenges, read our article Make the Homework Battle a Win for Everyone.

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Jim Jackson
Jim Jackson
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