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Skip the motivational talk. Ask how they're doing

"Andrew and Sabrina, it's the new school year and let's make it a great one. You're in the big time now – what you do counts. This is where you begin making your future. As a little incentive, here is a list of what you can get if each of you reaches your set goals, and here is another list of what you will lose if you come up short. And remember those important words that we always say: 'I can do it.' Do you two want to be losers in life? Or are we going to be a family of winners? It's up to you!"

For anyone with teenagers, the start of school is the true new year. So it's natural to want to focus on getting your teenager motivated – setting goals, planning strategies, making resolutions, getting them into the right frame of mind for what's ahead.

First, let's get priorities in order. Let's ask the kids.

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"So Andrew, what are your aims for this school year?"

"I want to continue my ascendancy as a rock star, and I want to complete Death Star Invaders III: The Plague of Blood."

"How about you, Sabrina?"

"This year I really want to explore my sexuality."

Actually, most teenagers do begin the school year motivated to do well. They do think it counts and are anxious about how they are going to do. They want to start the school year with redoubled effort.

The problem is that motivational lectures, promised rewards for good performance and dire threats for lack thereof only work at first and only for a short while. Then the bright-eyed enthusiasm of September turns into the tired boredom of November, and eventually fades into the endless greyness of February.

So what's a parent to do?

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Dr. Wolf took your parenting questions

Some kids are good about keeping up with their school work. They don't need their parents to take on a major supervisory role.

But there are many kids who do not do nearly as well as they might, had they only been more diligent about keeping up with their schoolwork.

"I am diligent about my schoolwork. It's just that I get really tired. Well, I do."

For them, parental involvement does make a difference. My suggestion is to have a set, finite study time during which they are not allowed to do anything else. You can't make kids do homework, but it is easier to enforce regular times when they are not allowed to do anything else.

For this to work, you have to be there to make sure they comply. Often this is more effective if the homework time is spent not in their room, but in a more public part of the house. Regardless, it needs to be at a time when you will be there too.

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"Seriously? But getting schoolwork done is the No. 1 source of day-to-day unpleasantness between me and the kids."

True. Homework is often the top stress area in the home between parent and teenager.

"And besides, how will they ever learn to do it on their own if I'm always on their case?"

They'll learn to do it on their own by getting in the habit of doing work. Unfortunately, kids who are not disciplined at schoolwork do not magically become that way on their own.

My experience has been that parents who are involved, who at least try to stay on top of whether their child is doing the necessary schoolwork – their children do better than those of parents who choose to back off.

One last suggestion for the beginning of the school year. Once the school year starts, ask your kid about whether there are any problems with any of his or her classes. Are they too hard? Are they having trouble understanding the material? Are they unclear as to what they are expected to do?

Ask every day: "How was your day at school, dear?" And, especially, early in the school year: "Are there any problems?" Do not be intimidated if all they do is mumble. Asking and continuing to ask makes it far more likely to learn if there is a problem than if you don't.

The beginning of the school year is a good time to set goals. But do not delude yourself into thinking that good intentions alone produce much unless you are willing to see them through over the course of the year.

"So when do I get to explore my sexuality?"

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