Dear Zinc is a regular advice column for high schoolers and their parents, written by Matt’s company, Zinc. To submit a question, email zinc.
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Our son is a 9th grader at a top California public high school. He swims for one of the better clubs in our area. We’re told he could be a D1 swimmer, but his girlfriend, who is determined to swim for Stanford, Berkeley or UCLA trains before and after school and has already placed at national meets. She’s on his case about not trying hard enough, and, frankly, she’s right. He has a 3.8 GPA, but in-state, UC Santa Barbara expects a 4.0. Also, he does what’s required of him but not one jot more. He spends hours and hours on social media or on Xbox. We both graduated from top tier colleges. We don’t need him to do that, but the game has changed. When we tell him to join a club or something, he laughs contemptuously. We definitely don’t wanna be those parents, but we also want to set our child up for success. Help!
Not Those Parents
You’re in a tight but all too familiar spot. Here are some guidelines:
It’s his world. He’s the player. I’d love to say you’re the coach, but…you’re not even the coach. At the risk of over-extending the metaphor, on this team, you’re more like a cross between the owner and the facility. You’re the grass the game gets played on and the air the player breathes.
Anything positive you can contribute rests on the foundation of your unconditional love, trust, and respect for your son. Prioritize the relationship over the outcome. No matter how surly he may act, he wants only your complete approval. If he feels it’s beyond his reach, he won’t try. Lack of parental approval has driven many of us to all sorts of crazy efforts and many others into the abyss. Research shows that approval gets a lot more traction.
For your son, “Hey, why don’t you join a club at school?” may translate as, “We’re more concerned about superficial appearances — ie, where you go to college — than we are about who you really are.” At an age when it’s developmentally appropriate for him to seek separation, you risk alienating him.
At the same time, you’re correct that hiding out in his self-enforced gaming and social media dungeon dulls him and syphons off much of the richness you’ve hoped to provide. Joining a club or even seven clubs he doesn’t care about won’t help though. Colleges prefer candidates who contribute to their communities, but they find Tracy Flick-style box checkers almost as distasteful as slackers.
What will help your son in the college process is the same thing that will help him in life — a connection with what matters to him and an ability to effectively engage with the outside world. That’s an awful lot to ask of a hormonal teen, sipping at the firehose known as the high school curriculum, while navigating the digital assault on his dopamine coming at him from multiple screens, all under the conscious or unconscious pressure of impending adulthood.
Still, it can be done and should be attempted — most of all, for his benefit!
Yes. You feel the clock ticking, but time is also on your side. Remember how radically he changed during his toddler years? The teenage brain develops at least as much as the toddler brain. Efforts and abilities that seem inconceivable for him right now will become routine during the next year or two.
If his reply to your query about what interests him goes something like, “Well the main thing that really grabs me is Madden 18,” your answer is, “Of course! We love entertainment too!” Then, if you can do so in a non-confrontational way, get him thinking about what Call of Duty, Overwatch, Snapchat, or Instagram do for him.
Separate your fears from his. Cordon off any desire you might have to atone vicariously for failures you perceive in yourself. Take the long view, believe in your son’s intrinsic worth, and stay relentlessly faithful to your love for him.
Doing so will set him up to succeed no matter where he goes to college. You will feel a good deal of pain when he leaves home in three years. Spend those years in conflict or stony silence and you’ll experience only painful pain when he goes. Help him grow by providing a foundation of trust, faith, and love, and transform the sorrow of his leaving into the exquisite, beautiful pain that only parenting can offer.