Grades slip as preteen socializes

Child Life

November 03, 1996|By Beverly Mills | Beverly Mills,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My 12-year-old is in all honors classes, and he has recently discovered girls. He rushes through his homework and spends the rest of the evening on the telephone. His grades are suffering tremendously. How do you get kids to have the attitude about their grades that they did before they reached this age?

Lisa Marsh

Cedar Hill, Texas

Give your honors student time to adjust to all the emotional and physical changes of pre-adolescence and take heart that his phone time isn't all wasted. He's learning some valuable lessons about life.

Parents who called Child Life put it more bluntly. "Back off," advised Kay Casey, a reader from California.

"It's called the seventh-grade slump," explains author and child psychologist David Elkind. As a youngster crosses the bridge from childhood to adolescence, his body is changing, his emotions are erratic, and his hormones are out of kilter. Friends are beginning to take precedence over family.

So much is changing inside and out that even the most achievement-oriented child's grades often slip, says Elkind, author of "Parenting Your Teenager" (Ballantine, $10, $13.50 Canada).

On the plus side, parents point out that it's better for your child go through this phase now.

"Let him become social, let him sow his wild oats while he's in middle school so that it's out of his system by the time he gets to high school where the grades count," says Mary G. Worth, a Peach- tree City, Ga., parent who went through the very same thing with her son.

It's also a good opportunity to begin shifting the burden of responsibility to the child -- a lesson sometimes tougher on parents than kids. "They are his grades, not hers," reader Casey says.

Most children need a year -- sometimes two years -- to adjust before returning to the habits that got them into honors courses in the first place, Elkind says. And, he says, most of them will.

Sit down with your preteen and talk about what's happening in his life, Elkind recommends. Tell him you're going to allow him a little leeway but that you expect him to return to his former hard-working ways, Elkind advises.

"It's something she's going to have to work out with him, not do to him," says Charles Heuchert, an education professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

"The discussion should not be a heated one. It should be done over a can of Coke," he says. "We don't want him to feel he's doing something terribly wrong."

Both Elkind and Heuchert remind parents that all those hours on the phone are really a positive sign.

"It's pretty wonderful, in a way," Heuchert says. "He's reaching out, wants to be noticed, wants to belong. He just needs some parameters around him."

As children, friends were simply playmates, Elkind explains. But as preteens and teens, youngsters begin to share their thoughts, feelings and beliefs with friends -- all crucial skills for adulthood.

Don't feel left out, Heuchert advises. Rather, take a behind-the-scenes role, asking preteens about their friends and showing genuine interest.

Many frustrated parents called Child Life to advocate revoking phone privileges.

"Give him a week to see if he pulls up his grades and if he doesn't, slap him with a phone restriction," says Barbara Smith of Richmond, Va. "He will get highly motivated."

However, Elkind and Heuchert warn that phone restrictions will backfire.

"It'll become a game: How can I do it without you finding out." Elkind says. "I'd rather have kids be open about it."

Adds Heuchert: Restrictions "just drive the kid underground."

Can you help?

Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608, or send e-mail to

Not a gag: "What should you do about a young child who has a habit of sticking her fingers down her own throat and gagging -- spitting up?" asks Mattie Rogers of Baltimore. "Sometimes when she's agitated, bored or just eaten, she brings her bottle right back up. We don't know what to do."

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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