Advice

This collection of Dr. Thompson’s answers to parents’ questions addresses children’s development, behavioral difficulties or other challenges at home or school. While he is no longer taking questions, you may find these questions and answers valuable. You can also join the conversation on Dr. Thompson’s Facebook page.

Is a gap year before college too risky?

Parents in Shanghai (From Little Star Magazine, Shanghai), asks:

Our oldest son just graduated from high school two weeks ago. Instead of going to university this fall, he has decided to take a gap year. He says he wants to pursue his other dreams before going to college to study chemistry. Although we know some students take a gap year before college, we are still a bit worried that his decision is too risky. We thought it would be better for him to pursue his other dreams after university or in the future. What do you suggest?

I am in favor of gap years, and I will tell you why in a moment, but I need you to know that I’m not the only person who feels this way. A few years ago, the dean of admissions for Harvard College, Bill Fitzsimmons, was asked what he would like to see happen for those select students who had managed to gain admission to that elite institution. He recommended that every student consider taking two years off from school before coming to Cambridge. It was his belief that given all the demanding academic work that his applicants had done in high school, they needed the life experience (and refreshment!) that would come from being out of school, that it would enable them to return to their academic work with renewed energy and commitment. A few years ago, when I ran a day-long workshop for the college admissions counselors of the eight largest boarding schools in the Northeast U.S. (Exeter, Andover, St. Paul’s, etc.) I asked the college counselors how they would change any aspect of the college admissions process if they could wave a magic wand and make it happen. Their universal recommendation was that the vast majority of students take a gap year before going off to college.

In my experience, a lot of seniors, especially the hardest working students, are pretty burned out by the time they finish high school. They have been on an academic treadmill since at least the age of five, and perhaps even earlier. They haven’t been able to make their own decisions, structure their own time, or make their own choices. Many are simply tired of school. In spite of being wonderfully accomplished in their academics, they do not feel very useful in the world. For such students, the experience of travel or work may give them a feeling of competence and maturity that they cannot get in school.

High school graduates from Australia and New Zealand typically take a gap year and travel before going to university. I meet them all over Asia, waiting on tables, working in hotels. The daughter of dear friends of mine took a gap year in Paris before going to college. She had to manage her own money, live in an apartment, attend an immersion French course, and meet people from all over the world, among other things. My friends reported that it was as if she had matured two years in the space of nine months from that experience.

You mention the "risks" of a gap year. I would say that there are risks in sending an unmotivated boy off to college. Many more boys than girls flunk out of freshman year in college. College students in the U.S. are surrounded by the heaviest drinking segment of the American population (a third of U.S. college students get seriously drunk once a week). If a young man is not psychologically motivated for college, he can become depressed, go socially wild or simply be an indifferent student.

I think you need to honor your son’s request for a gap year. At the very least, talk seriously with him about what he might do, does he want to work or travel, where would he go, with whom would he go, etc.? Ask him whether he would be socially lonely without the automatic group of friends that a college dorm provides. Help him think through what the year might be like. There is a chance that, after talking with you, he’ll find that he suddenly prefers college or he may become more excited about what a gap year offers. I believe that he’ll have a more successful year if he feels that he is choosing what he wants to do.

The one thing I can assure you of is this: I have never, in my entire career as a consultant to independent schools in the U.S. and international schools, ever known a student who failed to start college after taking a gap year. There is no risk at all of a gap year leading a student a loss of interest in education. Indeed, working a low-level job often increases a young man’s motivation for education.

“Pressured Child” of 8 doing his best?

Beth from Summit, New Jersey, asks:

I had the pleasure of attending a recent lecture on "The Pressured Child" which you gave near my home. One of the many wonderful points you made was that "at any given moment, every child is doing their best," given their current mindset, environment, distractions, etc., meaning, I believe, that no one tries to do poorly. I have a very bright 8-year old son who is in third grade; he is not particularly motivated to do his best or put forth full effort in school or in athletics. While I think I understand the point you were making, my son is clearly able to write neatly but often rushes and "chooses" not to. He is able to skate well and be a contributing member of his hockey team, but typically only does so for about half of a game. He is able to do math but often makes careless mistakes and refuses to check his work. What can we do to encourage him to give his all to whatever he is doing, to do his best and reach his potential?

You tell me that your son is bright, and that makes me happy for him. Intelligence gives a boy an edge in life; however, as you clearly know, being bright and being persevering are two entirely different things. Intelligence is a gift of nature; the capacity for sustained work is an ability that has to be developed over time. Not many eight-year-old boys have a "natural" capacity for sustained effort and attention, nor do they care enough about homework or the score in a hockey game.

Indeed, very intelligent boys often think that they have been given a gift-thank you, God-so that they can do their homework real fast and get it over with. Gifted boy athletes often think that they only need to get out on the field or the rink and show their stuff and then they can pay attention to something else. It is through practice and more practice, and seeing the positive results from all that work, that a boy’s capacity to knuckle down and do a thorough job increases.

I have two suggestions. Try sitting next to your son when he is doing his homework every night. Turn off the television, create a study hall atmosphere, get a book, sit down with him and say, "I’m going to sit with you because I know it is hard for most boys to pay attention to homework. I’m here if you have any questions." Just use your presence to let him know that you and he are going to sit together for a prescribed amount of time, say twenty minutes. I guarantee that your presence and attention while he works will slow him down.

If you have time for an experiment one evening, do the following. Photocopy his homework assignment (if it is a one-of-a-kind worksheet) and set the copy to the side. Tell him you are going to give him a speed test. Ask him how long it usually takes him to do one problem. If he doesn’t know, time him with a watch while he does a very easy problem. Then challenge him to finish all the problems in his homework in the shortest time possible (easy problem times X-the number of problems in the homework). Encourage him to do it at top speed. Once he has finished, set the homework aside, without looking at it. However, notice if he struggles with a problem. If he did, ask him to do that one problem slowly and thoroughly; once again, time with your watch. Then, present him with the second clean worksheet. Encourage him to do that worksheet at his "slowest" time (hard problem time x number of problems in the homework). When he has finished, put the two papers side by side and ask him to compare them. Make the task fun. See if you can engage him intellectually in the task. (If he discovers the scientific flaw in the experiment as I have proposed it, get him to propose a better design for the experiment)

What I am suggesting is that you can teach your son to take the time he needs to do a good job. He doesn’t have the ability at eight years old for the simple reason that he is….eight years old. He’s still impulsive and he’s not very motivated to play an entire hockey game. He will be in time, when he’s bigger, stronger, more focused and when he has developed the wisdom to know that thee is a very strong connection between effort and outcome.

How to help 11-year-old stop rushing, aim for excellence?

Ann from Massachusetts, asks:

My 11-year-old son, whom I adore, continues to rush through his homework, class work, and tests. We have been after him since third grade to slow down and double check his work because he makes careless errors. Both my husband and I have tried speaking with him calmly, as well as getting angry with him. Nothing works. How can we inspire our son to slow down and do the best job?

One of the most common complaints that parents have about their sons is that they rush through their homework and are careless about their school work I get a lot of questions about this tendency. Since this problem is seen so frequently in boys, you need to know that your son is perfectly normal. However, in order to know how to help a boy persevere in an unpleasant task, we have to try to understand it from a boy point of view.

While there are boys who are conscientious about homework right from the start, many, many boys regard homework as something illegitimate, burdensome and pointless. They feel that they have sat in school all day listening to adults talk; they have done their best to sit still and follow school rules. It has been hard for them because the average boy tends to be more physically restless and impulsive than girls. So, the idea that they have to come home and sit down to do work again is simply unacceptable, even unbearable to them. Boys talk among themselves and support each other in their resistance to homework. They will say, "Homework is stupid!" and, "I hate homework!"

When your son comes home to a house filled with fun things to do, like television or video games or playing with friends in the neighborhood, his approach to homework is almost certainly to get it over with as soon as possible so that he can turn to something more fun. He believes he is doing heroics just to do his homework in the first place. You are asking him to CARE ABOUT IT, and that’s something he’s unwilling to do. You may never be able to persuade him that homework is important and necessary, but you can create a structure in the household that will help him to do get it done right. You do that by paying more attention to him when he is doing his homework.

I suggest that you create a “study hall” atmosphere in the house for about forty-five minutes to an hour each night. That means no television (not for mom, not for dad), no video games, no music. After dinner, for example, you need to clear the table and sit down with him and his younger brother or sister, if he has siblings. Tell them that this is homework time and you are there to be of help, if they need you. Ask some organizing questions, “What’s been assigned?” or “How long do you think this will take?” Just be a steady, calming presence. You should have something for you to read or otherwise occupy you-perhaps a newspaper, or paying the bills. Do not, however, talk on the phone or clean the kitchen. You should be doing the same thing he is doing: reading or writing Occasionally, just look up and watch his work rate and ask, “Do you have any questions?” or “How is it going?” or “Try to do your best work.”

If you see him speeding through an assignment, you might ask, “May I see that?” or “Are you doing your best work?” That is, catch him in the act of rushing and gently slow him down in the moment. That will be far more effective than waiting until he has finished his work and trying to get him to go back. He’ll resent that (“But it’s completely done, Mom!”)

Don’t pin him down for hours and hours. Forty-five minutes should be plenty, and he should know from the start that it is going to last for a finite period of time. If he expresses anger or frustration, you can say, “Only twenty-seven minutes to go; you can do it.” Some parents use a kitchen timer to give children both a sense of limits and a sense of hope.

I would be up front with your son by telling him that you are trying to teach him good work habits that will help him not only with homework, but with his future work as a man. “Homework,” you can say to him, “Is sometimes dumb, and I understand that, but good work habits are important for life. You will need them when you are a man.” It might help for you or his father to say that the one thing that employers require is an employee who knows how to do a good job.” That is, make the stakes about his future, his life, his work as a man, not about homework, because if the truth be told. a lot of homework is really dumb (Whoops! That’s the boy in me coming out!)

If you have never worked this way with him before, it may be tough to change the evening routine, but you should try. If he fights you, you can make his allowance depend on it, or make his ability to play video games conditional on working seriously during the “study hall.” What I don’t want you to do, however, is become his teacher. Think of yourself as his “homework aide” but don’t get totally detail-oriented, don’t go over everything, don’t check it until it is perfect. It is his homework, not yours. Teach work habits; don’t take responsibility for teaching the subject itself. Only give him help with the content when he asks.

Over time, he may find that he appreciates the structure you have put into place. He may find he likes being better prepared in class, or he likes getting better grades.

When should forgetful 9-year-old suffer consequences?

Jaye from Madison, New Jersey, asks:

Our nine-year-old son is constantly forgetting things at home. His homework, over which he willingly toils, inadvertently slips from his folder onto the floor, or his lunch is left behind next to where he sat to put on his shoes, or he forgets to wear his cleats to lacrosse practice. He has a hard time socializing (although I’m not sure how cognizant of this he is or how much it affects him) so I want him to bring his lunch in order to maximize his ability to get a good seat at lunch.

I feel badly about his homework since he takes great pride in his academics, and this seems to be a big part of his identity, due to the lack of the social component. My husband says I should just let him suffer the consequences of his absent-mindedness (although my husband also believes that I should suffer the consequences for his own forgetfulness, as I am often scrambling to locate/retrieve forgotten items on HIS behalf, as well). I don’t want to be making extra trips to the school (sometimes once or twice a week!) but how old do you think my child has to be for me to really just let him "suffer"?

Thank you for the email question about your disorganized nine-year-old. It made me smile to hear that the boy was so very much like his father. I suspect that you are not the first woman who has managed both a disorganized son and a disorganized husband. As I frame my reply to you, I will keep in mind that you do not have genetics on your side in this matter. I won’t be able to reassure you by saying, "Oh, he’ll outgrow it" because you won’t believe me. Your son appears to have inherited his father’s brain.

Most boys rely on their parents, usually their mothers, to keep them organized until their brains develop enough to be able to manage all of the tasks they are required to do for schools. The typical boy is likely to be forgetting things up until the age of fourteen or fifteen, though he is likely to know where every card in his baseball card collection is or where his video game discs are. Boys are more organized when it comes to personal items that they really value. Around sixth or seventh grade, moms get tired of doing all of the organizational work for their sons and they tend to let their middle-school sons "face the music" with their teachers. That normal developmental model suggests that it is too soon to let your son "suffer the consequences."

However, your situation is not quite typical. Driving to school to take him his homework once or twice a week is too much. If you are too willing to bail out your son every time he forgets something, he has no motivation to even try to get organized. I think you should start telling him that you are no longer willing to make special trips to school and then help him get organized before he heads in the morning.

If he takes the bus, you should have a checklist by the door where he departs. Before he opens the door you and he should go down the checklist: lunch ("check!"), lacrosse cleats ("check!") homework for math ("check!"), homework for language arts ("check!"). Make him show you that he really has every item before he leaves. This is hard work, and it will take organization on your part, but I believe in the long run it will help him internalize the organizational habits he is going to need in the future. The emotionally difficult part for you will be if he manages somehow to forget something even though you have gone through the checklist with him. You will need to tell your upset son.

If you drive him to school, ask him again when he gets in the car, "Do you have everything?" Make him show you his lacross shoes and his homework, and remind him that you are not going to be driving the rescue route today because you have other things you need to do. When he answers yes, sit quietly for a second and ask again, "Are you sure? I’m not coming back." That’s fair warning.

The emotionally difficult part for you will be if he manages somehow to forget something even though you have gone through the checklist with him. You will have to tell your upset son that you aren’t driving over to school with his homework. That will feel like a betrayal to him the first time, but once he survives that day, he will have learned that forgetting something is, perhaps, distressing but not devastating. That’s an important lesson to learn.

It sounds as if your son is bright and devoted to his school work. That’s great. If, as he gets older, his organizational problems don’t improve, I would get a psycho-educational evaluation for him. He might have some significant problems with "executive functioning," which is a form of non-verbal learning disability. If that turns out to be the case, he might be entitled to get additional organizational support at school.

Widowed Mother: How to Keep Dad’s Memory Alive for Young Son?

Lisa from New York, asks:

I am a single mom with a 2-year-old son, Sam. My husband passed away from a sudden heart ailment when I was four months pregnant. He was only 32 years old. I would love to get some guidance on what to say to Sam, as he is becoming more and more curious and when he hears the other kids call their fathers “Daddy” he begins to call them Daddy, too. He lights up every time he is around my uncles or his Grandpa or any male. He seems like a real “guy’s guy” and I just don’t want to scare him when he asks me. I thought I’d tell him that his Father is in heaven watching over him. But these kids today are so curious and I am terrified to say the wrong thing. Any advice or guidance would be so appreciated.

I’m sorry to hear that your husband died at such a young age. How painful to lose him when you were pregnant with your and his child. I’m also sorry to know that your son lost his dad so early in life. At two years of age, he has an intense interest in the lives of other boys because he is just beginning to think of himself as a boy. He wants to be just like every boy and he wants to have what every other boy has: a dad. But I think he doesn’t just want a “Daddy” because other boys have one, I believe all children have a deep wish to know the two parents who created them. There is no question that your son will feel sadness or grief when he realizes that his father has died. He will feel it many times throughout his life as he grows up and wonders what it would have been like to have known his dad.

The problem you face is that at two years old, Sam cannot really understand the concept of death. Children that young do not comprehend that it is permanent. If, as a person of faith, you experience your husband as being in Heaven and watching over you, you should tell that to Sam. That is a comfort to you and can become a comfort to him; children like to know that someone is in a place. He may have questions about where Heaven is and why his dad cannot come back from there. Do the best you can to answer his questions; there is no magic answer. It just isn’t easy to explain the concept of an afterlife to someone who doesn’t understand death.

What your son does know is that if you tell him something bad happened before he could remember, that he had a dad, but that his dad “died,” and he can see your sadness, he will begin to understand. If you show him a picture of his dad and tell him how much wish that he had been able to meet his father, and how much his face or the way he moves (or some other aspect of him) reminds you of his father’s, he can understand that he once had a very special man in his life. You say that he loves being with your uncles and his grandfather. That’s great. I hope he gets to spend a lot of time with them. And if your husband’s father is still alive, and if he is able to talk about the loss of his son, he should do so. Nothing complicated: just that everyone loved Sam’s father and that he “died” and he can’t be here anymore because he’s dead, but everyone loves Sam now and he reminds everyone of his dad.

You cannot hurt Sam by telling him the truth, just don’t overwhelm him with a lot of detail that he cannot yet understand, and don’t expect him to “get it” right away. What he needs to know is that if he has any more questions, he can talk to you or other people. He will have questions about his father at many different ages; you want him to feel comfortable turning to you as his future source of information. You can also play a role in keeping his father alive in his mind by saying, “Your father would have been so proud to see you accomplish this (going off to Kindergarten, playing on a town soccer team, whatever).”