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Jun 19 2013

My Third Grader Had a Terrible Year (And I Didn’t Do Anything About It)

By at 9:44 am

elementary school kids in dunce cap vintage“Where has the time gone?” my fellow third grade moms trill as end of school looms. “This year has just gone by so fast!”

Not for me. For me, my middle child’s third grade year has dragged by in excruciating increments until I was telling people I was just hoping to hang on and ride it out–like labor.

My son was miserable in third grade. And he generously decided to pass that misery onto me.

It all started when none of his friends from previous years were placed in his particular class. I agreed with him: tough break. But, he could still see them at recess and after school and, well, life is full of tough breaks, so how about we suck it up and soldier on?

My mother once described my now 9-year-old as, “A perfectly agreeable child–as long as what you want him to do lines up with what he wants to do exactly.”

What my son did not wish to do at this time was attend school. And he made that fact perfectly clear via a course of passive resistance that would have done Gandhi proud.

While he dutifully got dressed in the morning and left the house without a peep, once he was in the building, he went on strike. He dawdled through his math. He filled his workbook with one word answers. He never raised his hand in class and, during recess, he hovered by the door, refusing to take part, turning glowering into a competitive sport.

The teacher tried talking to him. His big brother tried talking to him. I tried talking to him. So did my husband. My parents suggested, “Why don’t you offer him a reward for doing better in school?”

No, sorry, I don’t play that. In my book, motivation needs to be internal. I was not about to slip into a lifelong pattern of bribing my child into doing what he should have in the first place.

I am, however, not averse to blackmail. I informed my son that unless his attitude and his effort markedly improved, he would be spending the summer doing make-up schoolwork with me. And this child is no fool–he knows I’m a tougher task-masker than any third grade teacher.

Within 48 hours I got a call from the school praising his miraculous improvement.

Good for them. Not so good for me.

Because now, my son transferred his passive resistance strategies to the home front. Homework that should have taken 20 minutes a night stretched into two hours as he complained about having to do it, then claimed he didn’t know how to do it.

So I broke another cardinal rule of parenting. I showed my son his IQ and standardized test scores. I showed him where he ranked in the national percentiles. I told him I had scientific proof that he damn well could do the work and I expected him to–no excuses.

And then I reminded him he’d been invited to join his ballet school’s pre-professional program next fall. He’s very excited about it. But if he thinks he’s going to be taking four classes a week with these kinds of study habits, he’d better think again. The only way I’d sign him up for the intensive was if he proved he could get his work done in the amount of time allotted.

What do you know? He stared getting his work done in the amount of time allotted.

Seeing how passionate my son is about his non-school activities–in addition to ballet, he’s been teaching himself to program computers in Scratch and Python; he also fences competitively and builds complicated contraptions out of household spare parts–and knowing that he goes to a very structured, traditional, hard-core academic school, well-meaning friends have inquired, “Don’t you think he would be happier in a progressive environment?”

I absolutely think my son would be much happier in a progressive environment.

But, as my mother told her own children, “You don’t go to school to have fun.”

My son would be much happier in a progressive environment, where he could learn what he wants to learn, when he wants to learn, and how he wants to learn it. But, what he would not learn is that usually, in the real world, getting what you want means having to do things you don’t like in order to reach your ultimate objective. That’s the lesson my husband and I consider most important–even ahead of phonics and long division. So he’ll be staying where he is.

But academics weren’t our only Waterloo this year. There was also a social issue.

Since kindergarten, my son has had a mortal enemy. In third grade, they were placed in the same class for the first time.

My son insisted this boy was bullying him. At which point I committed my third (fourth?) parenting sin (not of all time; just what I’m confessing in this particular post): I asked my son, “What did you do to provoke him?”

Growing up, I was mercilessly bullied. And it was all my fault. I was an obnoxious kid. I thought I was smarter than everyone else and made no effort to hide it. I had no interest in what other girls were passionate about–Shaun Cassidy, Hello Kitty, pretty clothes, makeup–and my disdain was palatable. I made no attempt to get along with others or to consider matters from their points of view. I acted superior. I deserved what I got.

If my son was getting picked on, he must have done something–even unconsciously. And if he wanted it to stop, he’d need to identify the problem and fix his own behavior, first.

In addition, according to his teacher, my son was giving as good as he got in the harassment department. From what she was seeing on a daily basis, it was a case of two boys with a great deal of antipathy towards each other going at it. To her, my son was as much of an instigator as the other child, despite his claims of innocent victimhood. She said, “Yes, the other boy enjoys pushing your son’s buttons. But your son also has to learn to move on and let go, too. He’s still obsessing over slights from four years ago!”

“Are you going to step in?” people ask when I describe the kind of year it’s been. “Call the other kid’s parents? Ask the school to do something?”

No. I’m not. Life is full of bullies and people who want to make you miserable for a variety of reasons. He’s got to learn how to handle it on his own, to develop coping strategies, and to decide for himself whether he’s going to fight back or duck and cover. Whether he is willing to change who he is in order to fit in, or to stick to his guns and accept the inevitable consequences.

He’s got all summer–and the rest of his life–to make a choice he feels comfortable with. I’ll support him either way. There are plenty of good arguments to be made for charting your own unique course and suffering the slings and arrows that come with it, as well as for going with the flow and making life easier for yourself. It’s an issue I’ve struggled with for most of my life. I know exactly what my son is going through.

I’ll be here to discuss his options and strategies. But, I won’t interfere. And I won’t make his decision for him. Even if, right now, he thinks he wants me to.

Which definitely won’t make things easier for me. But, in the long run, it should make them better for him.

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