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Mrs. Wentworth

Dear Mrs. Wentworth: My son is failing to meet his potential in school. He used to get solid A's and B's and now he's getting C's and D's and even a few F's. He fails to turn in his homework, if he even does it. He has new friends and I'm worried they're influencing him in negative ways. At this rate, he's not going to graduate on time. This past week I gave him an ultimatum: either he gets his grades up by semester's end or he's going to military school. Do you think he'll get the message? A Highly Frustrated Parent

Dear HFP:
I must be very candid with you. When you threatened your child with military school, you made a common error when dealing with this situation. There are more positive ways to deal with your frustration.

Nancy White Edwards, an independent educational consultant from West Virginia who has been a featured speaker at Wentworth, cautions parents to avoid two pitfalls when dealing with a child who is failing to meet his or her fullest potential. The first pitfall is the one you fell into - threatening your child with military school. The second is bribing them to attend.

The problem with giving your child an ultimatum is two-fold. First, it reinforces the stereotype of a military school that it is for 'troubled' kids when in fact most every military school in the nation prides itself on accepting high-achieving students committed to getting into college. If you child believes he's being shipped off to a 'reform' school, he'll naturally resist, which leads to the second problem. Success can only come about when students attend willingly. Now, this doesn't mean military schools like Wentworth won't accept kids who've had some difficulty, but it does mean they'll look at their past performance and future potential closely and admit them only if they see within the child a genuine willingness to give military school a meaningful effort. You can shape this positive outlook if you help your son to see that coming to military school is an opportunity rather than a punishment. Talk to him about starting fresh and about being able to rewrite this chapter of his life.

The second pitfall is the tendency to bribe a child to attend a military or other boarding school. 'If you go for just one semester and get your grades up, we'll let you return to public school.' Sounds good in theory but what happens is that your child is motivated to improve only so that he can return to his old environment, which is what you're attempting to steer him clear of. Remember, lasting change takes time. A military school produces rapid change in a young person's behavior but it is largely environmentally- driven. In other words, the structure of military schools causes students to turn in their homework, study every night, etc. So the likelihood is that they'll make steady improvement and achieve the grades you want. If they're returned home too early, they'll likely revert back to old habits and their grades will again spiral downward. Creating lasting change - getting your child to do the right thing even when no one is looking - typically takes two years. The other danger with bribery is that it holds you accountable. What if your son doesn't improve as much as you'd like in the time you've agreed to? At Wentworth, he's governed by an Honor Code. So he's going to hold you accountable to the same standard he's held to. If you change your mind and decide he needs to stay, you've violated his trust and it's very likely he'll shut down and refuse to be a willingly participant any longer.

As Ms. White Edwards points out, encourage your child by affirming that he's doing the right thing by going to military school but refrain from giving in to his attempts to negotiate a return home 'if' he gets grades up, etc. Let him know firmly that you will not be manipulated; instead find every way possible to encourage his fullest participation in the school. The more invested he is in his new school environment, the less he will seek to leave it.

'Mrs. Wentworth' is Norma Maring, Director Emeritus of Alumni Relations at Wentworth Military Academy. Write Norma with your questions at 1880 Washington Ave., Lexington, MO 64067 or send email to mrswentworth@wma.edu.

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