I’m Only Going to Say This 100 More Times…

Dear Mr. Dad: We’ve tried to stress the importance of study habits to our 12-year-old son. But no matter what we do or say, he seems to end up playing video games instead of doing his homework. What can we do to make him start taking studying seriously?

A: Whoa. Before we get to the homework thing, we need to talk about the real issue: What can you do to get your son to start taking YOU seriously? The simplest approach (although, I admit that it’s not going to be easy) is to take away the video games. Whether it’s confiscating his DS or tablet, locking up his game controllers, or activating the parental controls on his computer, you need to take some firm steps right now. Your son is still young, but if he doesn’t start taking schoolwork more seriously soon, his grades may interfere with his post-high-school education and, eventually, his choice of career.

If possible, get your son involved in the discussion—have him suggest ways he can earn back his gaming time. The more the rules come from him, the greater the chance that he’ll follow them. But make sure he’s got things in the right order. Schoolwork first, then games. No exceptions.

Okay, back to homework—but again, we have to start with a different question: When did this behavior start? If he’s never had any interest in studying, that’s one thing (and we’ll get to that in a minute). But if this is a relatively new development, you need to figure out what’s going on.

Has anything in your son’s life changed recently? Did you just move to a new neighborhood? Could he be having a problem with a teacher? Is there any possibility that he’s being bullied at school? Have you and your spouse been fighting a lot or are you getting divorced? Any of these can cause significant—but usually temporary—changes in study habits.

Your assignment is to get answers to these and other similar questions that could be influencing your son’s schoolwork. This is going to involve spending more one-on-one time with your son and learning about his life and how he feels about things.

The temptation is to sit him down and start grilling him, face to face. Don’t. It’s hard for a teen to interpret that kind of approach as anything but hostile. Instead, start by asking him general questions about school, friends, music and other non-explosive topics. And do this while you’re driving. There’s something about not having to look at each other that can remove some of the barrier to communication. If you listen carefully and resist the urge to lecture, you may get the answers to your questions without actually having to come right out and ask them. And in the process, you’ll be strengthening your relationship with each other.

Now, what if he’s ever been interested in studying? Is it possible that he’s not getting enough intellectual stimulation? This is big. A child who finds schoolwork to be boring may simply tune out.

If it’s not that, communicating with your son will still be the goal, but there’s a twist. In this case, you’ll try to find ways to build on his natural interests. For example, if he loves sports or mechanics or cooking or whatever, start there. And then find ways to introduce math or science or language arts principles through those interests. Showing him that what he’s learning has some actual real-world applications will make it a lot more interesting—and worth working on.

Taking Care of Mrs GI Dad

Dear Mr. Dad: You’ve written a lot of about how deployed dads can maintain strong relationships with their children while they’re away—and I’ve learned a lot of great stuff. But what about my wife? How do I keep my relationship with her strong too?

A: Excellent question! With all the attention that gets paid to dad-child relationships, it’s easy to forget that military marriages need plenty of care and feeding as well. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Adapt some of the kid-related activities you’re doing and use them with your wife. For example, if you’re making CDs or DVDs to send home, don’t stop with the kids’ books. Record some poetry or a chapter of a novel you’re both interested in reading. Send some R-rated—or X if you’re feeling brave—love notes home (in sealed envelopes) and have your children hide them where Mommy will find them.
  • Don’t compare or criticize. Yes, you may be dealing with life-threatening situations every day. Meanwhile, back at home, your wife is going through some pretty intense battles too. It’s apples and oranges, so any comparison will be unfair to one side or the other. Your wife probably has the good sense not to tell you how to do your job, so show her the same courtesy.
  • Support her. Your wife truly needs to know that you understand that life isn’t easy for her right now. She also needs to know that you love he, you think she’s doing a great job, and you support her 100 percent.
  • Ask her to limit media consumption. If your wife is one of those obsessive news junkies—watching TV for hours and hours every day and consuming every other kind of news story she can lay her hands on or click a mouse at—do everything you can to get her to cut back. This kind of behavior is usually an indication that she’s highly stressed about your physical safety and desperately need sof some reassurance. As guys, we often like to report how tough our living conditions are, or go through a bullet-by-bullet description of a firefight we survived. But some information is best kept to yourself.
  • Encourage her to get some support. Whether you’re asking for it or not, you’re getting a lot of emotional and social support from the other guys in your unit. Each of you knows exactly what everyone else is going through, and sometimes just knowing you’re not alone can be very reassuring. Your wife needs to find a similar support network. Fortunately, every unit has some kind of family support organization where wives (or at-home husbands) can get together with others who share their experience. They offer everything from a safe place to vent frustrations to help with babysitting. Unfortunately, a majority of wives don’t participate in FRG activities.
  • Encourage her to keep a positive outlook. But be very careful how you do this. Telling a woman who’s overwhelmed, lonely, sad, and depressed to “cheer up” or “look at the bright side” won’t go over well. Reminds me of one of my favorite cartoons. It’s called “One-session psychotherapy,” and the illustration is of a therapist backhanding a patient across the face while yelling, “Snap out of it!”
  • Encourage her to relax. Downtime in our society is hugely underrated. And a little goes a long way. A couple of hours off to take a yoga class or just a long walk alone could energize your wife for the rest of the week.

The Trouble with Kittens Is That They Grow Up to Be Cats

Dear Mr. Dad: Our adorable little girl has turned into a difficult, rebellious teenager. She’s only 14, but she already insists on wearing make-up, and screams things like, “I hate you!” and “It’s my life so you can’t tell me what to do.” Help!

A: And people say the terrible twos are bad? Ha! It won’t come as much comfort right now, but just about every parent of a teen has watched helplessly as their sweet baby morphed into something not nearly as sweet.

The first thing to do is take a deep breath and summon up as much patience as you can—you’ll need about four years’ worth.
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Regaining Your Parental Authority

Dear Mr. Dad: Our 12-year-old daughter does well in school but apparently hates us as parents. She never speaks kindly to us, refuses any kind of parental authority, and insists that “no one can tell me what to do.” She is very interested in boys and has been involved in “kissing sessions” on a school outing. We’re just about at the end of our rope. Is there anything we can do?

A: I can certainly see why this situation is upsetting you, and you’re absolutely right to be concerned. Teenagers are notoriously defiant of parental authority, but at twelve, your daughter is still a “tween,” far too young to be engaging in the kind of behavior you describe.
There are a few steps you should take right away, before her behavior becomes even more inappropriate, or starts posing a danger to her health and safety. First on the list is to ask the principal of her school why “kissing sessions” were allowed during a school outing. Where was the supervision? As far as I’m concerned, this is absolutely inexcusable and everyone involved should be held accountable.
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Dating a Defensive Divorced Dad

Dear Mr. Dad: I am currently dating a divorced father of two. I am having trouble communicating to him that being a good father does not exempt him from being a good partner. How can I get him to see my point of view without putting him on the defensive?

A: In a perfect world, you’re right–being a good father wouldn’t exempt your boyfriend from being a good partner. But I have to tell you that most single dads would make the same choice. Their priority is their children—giving them stability and protecting them from going through another breakup. When dating a divorced dad you have to understand that his kids are part of the package. You can’t have one without the other. And if you ever put him in a situation where he feels he has to choose between the kids and you, he’ll go with them every time.
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Building Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem

Dear Mr. Dad: I hear so much about the need for kids to have self-esteem and self-confidence, but I’m not sure how to go about instilling either one in my kids. They’re only four and six, so maybe it’s no big deal yet—but is there anything I can do now to raise confident kids?

A: Absolutely. It’s never too soon—or too late, for that matter—to think about your child’s future. But first, let me take a minute to hopefully eliminate some confusion. Self-confidence and self-esteem are related, but they’re not identical. Self-esteem is somewhat passive and has to do with how we see ourselves—what (or whom) we see when we look in the mirror. Healthy self-esteem is also crucial in developing positive attitudes and actions toward others. You’re much more likely to treat someone else with empathy and respect if you have a positive view of yourself.

Self-confidence is more active, and describes our willingness and ability to interact with the world around us.
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