hot stove

I am so very frustrated with my seventeen-year-old son. Ever since we adopted him nine years ago, he pulls the same stunt a dozen times a school year. He lies, says he doesn’t have homework, ends up with multiple missing assignments which he must then make up, and digs himself a deep dark hole of no TV, no Playstation, and no friends while he catches up. In nine years, he has had only two or three real holiday breaks from school because he usually has to spend all that time catching up.

We’ve tried counseling, heavy structure, essays to help him connect with the feelings that drive this behavior, meetings with teachers, positive rewards when he stays caught up, and negative consequences when he lies and doesn’t do assignments. The last straw was to charge him money for each missing assignment. He has a part-time job at the mom and pop grocery store as a bagger, and is thrilled to have money to spend. That’s how he bought the Playstation. We met with the counselor and agreed on a plan where he would pay us $50 for every missing assignment. That got his attention, or so I thought.

Last Monday when we checked the school website, he had four missing assignments, so he had to fork over $200. Again that got his attention, or so I thought. He even cried. I figured we were home free. And I reminded him that if he could go a month without missing assignments, I would give him my old iPhone.

So last night when we checked the school website again and he had three more missing assignments, I was really at a loss. That’s another $150. If losing so much money out of his pocket doesn’t motivate him, will anything work? Gavin admits he is lazy and doesn’t want to do the work. We all know that. We’ve talked with him and the counselor has talked with him about just doing the work anyway to get it over with so that he doesn’t have to pay such a heavy price for catching up. He agrees. And then he touches the hot stove again. Why? That’s all I want to know.

Last night at 10:30 pm when he really wanted to go to bed, I told him to start on his missing assignments. He got upset, and I said (with therapeutic sarcasm), “Oh, I agree, it’s a much better choice not to have done your work during the week so that you could stay up late on a Sunday night to get it done.” I told him that if he really had no intention of doing school work, let’s drop out and get a manual labor job, but that upset him even more. He wants a high school diploma. But he doesn’t want to do the work to get one.

We all have things we don’t want to do. A large part of school is learning to do things that are hard, that we don’t want to do. How does one function in life without that skill? And the heavy negative consequences (like burning your hand when you touch a hot stove) are supposed to shape behavior away from the negative. Why don’t they work for Gavin? Why does he want to be in this deep dark hole every few weeks? If I could understand it, I could handle it better. I wasn’t mad at him last night. It happens so often that I now just dispassionately direct him to complete the assignments and show them to me. But I don’t know how to help him, don’t know if he can be helped. We see the counselor again on Wednesday, and even though we’ve covered this in therapy innumerable times, maybe she’ll have a fresh insight. I can only hope.

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