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A column that tackles behavioural problems from toddlers to teens

The problem

Your teenager isn't trying at school and is getting failing grades. How involved should you be in getting them on track? Should you let them fail?

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"My parents need to back off. All that nagging does is make me less likely to do my homework – out of spite. I'd get way more done if they would just leave me alone."

Could your truculent teen actually be right? There is a strong argument for not being a homework cop. How will they ever learn to take the responsibility for doing what needs to be done if you are always on their case?

What not to do

When I first started seeing teenagers and their parents I was an advocate for the "let them fail or else how will they learn" school of thought. The problem – at least in my experience – was that the only thing that happened was that they continued to fail. They didn't learn anything. They just continued to fail.

"I am too learning. I will do my work and get better grades if my parents stay off my back. You'll see. It's just that I'm really tired tonight. I'm going to start tomorrow. You'll see."

But they never do.

What to do

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Make a deal with your kids that you will back off. No more constant homework checks. But, if at the time of the next official report from school, they are still doing badly, they will lose their freedom from you. You're back. And if they then significantly pick up their effort for a sustained period of time, they get back their freedom.

It's worth noting that you can't actually make a child do homework. Standing over them does not yield good results. But have a set homework time where they are not allowed to do anything else – no TV, no Facebook, no smartphone, no video games. That you will monitor. And if you hang in there with this – day after day, you will hear:

"This is so stupid."

Little by little they will get better at using the time. Will they learn responsibility? Maybe. What they will definitely learn is how to get things done – the all-important skill of grinding out the work. So that in the end – with or without supervision – they become more able to do work. Which was what you wanted in the first place, wasn't it?

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at awolf@globeandmail.com.

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