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Your preteen or teen student might be less interested these days in doing well and more interested in looking good. How can you help your child stay focused on achievement despite a kid culture that makes achievement uncool?

Kids’ attitudes about achievement change around age 9. Younger children believe that “practice makes perfect” and that not-knowing something today just means she can learn that something tomorrow. This is known as a “performance orientation” or “mastery orientation.” But by the start of fourth grade, students start to believe that what they know today (and what they don’t know) is part of who they are. It’s a trait that cannot be changed. So kids who were less than successful at reading or math or sports in the early grades may think that’s the way it always will be. And so they believe that there’s no point in trying to get better.

With this sort of defeatist attitude, trying to get better can actually be dangerous to a kid’s self-esteem. Since the child believes he cannot succeed, trying to succeed inevitably leads to embarrassment and shame. Why risk such unhappy feelings? Why try, only to be shown up as the dummy the child believes himself to be? It’s less risky not to try. People who don’t try, who “lose” their homework, or who “forget” assignments might be regarded as lazy or disorganized. But at least no one thinks they’re dumb!

This is where being too cool for school comes from: a desire to protect a tender self-concept by dismissing achievement as unimportant. And notice this: a child doesn’t have to have struggled in the early grades to feel less capable than her peers. Even children who are enrolled in gifted programs may come to feel like imposters and not so brilliant as the other kids in class. Every child is vulnerable to a trait orientation.

At the same time, of course, the value of peers increases dramatically around age 9. What one’s friends think becomes more important than what parents think. Attractiveness to the opposite sex rises in importance and continues, of course, throughout the teen years. So children’s ideas of what is the “ideal” set of traits for their sex – athleticism, physical attractiveness, knowledge of pop culture, and so on – form their ideal set of traits for themselves. For many kids, being good at math and science is further down the list of ideals than is knowing how to dress, knowing all the slang, and knowing the lyrics to the latest hit song.

What’s a parent to do? How can you help your child retain his performance orientation and be less the puppet of peer-valued traits? Here are some thoughts:

1. Be alert to expression of inflexible traits and use your influence to put these in proper perspective. My nine-year-old grandson recently announced with great drama that he no longer will eat scrambled eggs because he “doesn’t like anything soft and lumpy.” This despite eating soft, lumpy foods with relish in the past. He went on for quite a bit, describing his revulsion in terms that sounded like personality traits. Uh-oh! Time to help him downplay this by saying something like, “I hear you saying you don’t like the texture of scrambled eggs today. Someday you might like it again.”

2. Be alert to dogmatic expressions of what is the one right choice, especially when these choices are arbitrary. Preteens and teens adopt brand preferences on the strength of advertising and peers’ opinions even without trying the product in question themselves. Help children to question knee-jerk opinions and find self-esteem in well-reasoned choices. Ask, “Really? Tell me more.”

3. Be alert to kids’ disbelief in their own abilities or their chances of success through effort. Children who say, “I’m just not good at this” need to be reminded that they just haven’t solved this yet. Help your child to stay open to success in the future. If you notice that homework is undone and assignments overlooked, take that as a cue to provide tutoring or other support to bolster your child’s opinion of himself. Don’t argue. If your child says he doesn’t think he’s good at something, telling him he’s wrong won’t have much effect. You have to help him feel more successful.

4. Be alert to the school’s impulse to label children based on past performance and so lock them into a trait orientation. It takes courage to disagree with a teacher who tells you your child is a slacker with little chance for success. You might start with a conversation about trait and performance orientations. Help your child’s teacher recognize the effect of self-concept in the preteen and teen years on school success.

There’s no need for any child to fall out of step with his friends in order to do well at school. An appreciation of kid culture and an appreciation for one’s own capabilities are not mutually exclusive. But your child might think this way.

It’s up to you to intervene.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.