Parenting an Average Student

Note: This post was written with my son’s blessing and encouragement. 

One of the most challenging aspects of raising my son was accepting the fact that he was an unmotivated student. Though his father and I tried not to let his grades define how we saw him, especially during high school, they did have an impact on how we viewed ourselves as parents. We had moments of self-doubt and, at times, questioned the way we had raised him. What had we we done wrong?  What did we miss or fail to do to motivate him to succeed?

Nothing really, it turns out.

It was never up to us to motivate him in the first place. He had to find the motivation within himself.

In the hyper-competitive world of AP classes, honor rolls, valedictorians, students-of-the-month, perfect SAT scores, 4.0 and above GPAs, scholar athletes and more, having a child with average grades is considered a serious problem by many parents and can even be viewed by some as embarrassing and shameful. A “C” student might as well be a high school dropout as far as many top-tier colleges and universities are concerned. Some high school counselors, who can be overloaded by the sheer number of students they manage, and private admissions consultants, concerned about their reputations and admission rates, are quick to dismiss average students as junior-college bound.

Just because a student has average grades in high school doesn’t mean he or she won’t succeed in college.

My son was an average high school student, graduating with a GPA that was just shy of 3.0. There were a number of reasons for his less-than-stellar performance in high school, including ADHD and a severe lack of motivation. His father and I did everything we could think of to ignite an interest in academics in his intelligent but disinterested mind. Among other things, we hired tutors, including the one Ph.D. English teacher at his high school who had been so inspirational to our older daughter. As I surreptitiously listened each week, I was struck by how utterly bored my son was, despite the fascinating (if somewhat exasperated) way the teacher explained the text. For me, a voracious reader with an English degree, my son’s disdain for literature was both sad and a little terrifying. How would he ever make it in college without the skills to interpret complex writing?

And yet, when it came to sports, my son was a font of knowledge. His recall of baseball and football statistics was encyclopedic. He could dissect and evaluate every play in a football game the way mathematicians solve complex calculus equations. What good would all of this information do for him, his father and I wondered? On the other hand, we felt the life lessons he learned playing football in high school – commitment, discipline, respect, and teamwork – would be of great value to him, so we supported our offensive lineman and his team. We hoped that his zeal for learning about sports would someday translate to his academic pursuits as well.

The belief that attending a top tier school is the only path to success is not only untrue but impossible for the 95% of high school students who don’t have the grades and/or the financial ability to attend one of these elite institutions. There are thousands of excellent schools that will admit average students and offer them the growth experiences and education that are the reasons to attend a college or university in the first place. My son was fortunate to be accepted to one of those universities.

Parents of average students might want to consider doing things differently than we did and fight their understandable instinct to constantly push their students to perform better in school. Many teenagers don’t reach a level of maturity to find the impetus to work hard until after high school. The fighting and arguing about getting him to work harder, study more and do better was futile and frustrating and caused unnecessary stress for both my son and for my husband and me.

In my son’s case, it wasn’t until he went to college and found something that captured his attention – in his case, American History – that he was able to earn the grades we always knew he could.

My son graduated from college – in 4 years – in the spring of 2014. The key to his success was finding support and counseling throughout his college experience, along with simply growing up. His senior thesis was on the history of the Mexican baseball league and its impact on the sport in the United States. He received a B plus on his paper. He left college with two jobs waiting for him, one in management for a college football team and the other in public affairs for a large energy company. He succeeded despite being an average high school student – and without his parents breathing down his neck. He did it on his own, which for me is the most gratifying thing of all.

It’s unlikely a potential employer will ever ask him about his high school GPA. Why would they? There’s so much more to him than that.

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  • I love this post and couldn’t agree more! I too live in a very competitive town where grades seem to be everything! What I have learned is that many of these kids are stressed out, despite their intelligence, and not very happy. Then there are all the tutors and bells and whistles they receive to earn those grades. The key is self motivation but also acquiring a love of learning. I just sent my daughter off to college and learned so much from her journey. My son is still in high school and I’ve learned to back off. There is so much more to raising a healthy, happy child! Here’s a post I wrote on my blog about this same topic:

  • You did a great job with your son because the end result is all that matters. He is happy in the world!

    Our son had learning disabilities, and with encouragement and the right private school, he graduated at the top of his class. Today he is a senior in college and needs no extra support,always making Dean’s List. But best of all, he is also happy like your son.

    We worry about our children, but giving them the love and support that only a parent can give grounds them for life.

    Thanks for writing this, Sharon. Thanks so much.

  • Just had to tweet this out…I think it’s a wonderful message for all parents, no mater what kind of student you have. We need to stop thinking that everyone has to take 100 AP classes, that a 5.0 average, star athlete and community hero is the only way to success and happiness.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Thanks for sharing, Tammy.

      • Hi, I have a sophomore and we are dealing with ADHD, lack of motivation and average to poor grades. 3 C’s and 2 D’s. College is coming quick and we are so worried he will not get into any schools. You said your son was accepted to a college, do you mind telling me what school and what his GPA was? We push, but nothing seems to motivate him accept sports. Thanks and loved reading your blog today!! Heading off to conferences tonight!!

        • Jennifer

          My daughter was the same ADHD and no self motivation. She graduated with just over a 2.0 gpa. She is starting out going to a technical school. It is a more affordable option especially when you are unsure of how they will do. She has worked throughout high school and our rule is that they have to save 50%. Because of this she has enough money saved to pay for 1st year of tech school out of pocket. Our next rule for her is once she passes her classes we will reimburse her the money but I am not just going to throw money away. I also want to say its nothing you are doing. It is them. They have to want it. We also have another daughter who was a 4.0 and is going to U of M- which is fairly hard to get into for out of staters. They were both raised the same way but are very different people. Good luck to you and all will work out as it is meant to.

          • Sharon Greenthal

            Thank you! I wrote this 2 years ago, and I’m happy to say my son is doing very well. And I agree, it all works out.

  • We put way too much emphasis on grades.

    My oldest son dropped out of high school and went on to become a heroin addict for 6 years…I can’t begin to describe the nightmare that we went through.

    He’s 27 now and working for a freight company. He’s kicking ass and moving up at a rapid pace. He’s found a niche and peace in his life.

    Not only did he overcome poor grades and having a GED instead of a high school diploma, he also overcame opiate addiction and is on his way to being highly successful.

    I am beyond proud of him.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I’m so glad to hear that he’s doing so well Michelle, I can’t imagine how difficult those years must have been for all of you. You must be an amazing mother to have helped him overcome such a difficult problem.

  • Sharon, this was a great post and one that I really needed to read. I struggle with this a lot with our son, who just started his junior year in high school. I was a straight-A student so it is difficult for me to reconcile having a child who is not. However, we constantly try to emphasize it’s the effort, not the outcome, that we are concerned with. That fact about many teenagers not having the maturity to work hard until after high school was interesting and helpful to know!

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Yes, especially boys – there are so many distractions and changes in their lives – it’s sometimes hard to simply get through the day for them.

  • This is something I’d never thought about and I think your attitude is so healthy

  • Sharon, this is such an important read for parents with a high school student. Thank you for putting it all into perspective for them.

  • I have a long time before this applies to my daughter, but I want to print it out and put it in a folder for future reference.

    I know I could just bookmark it, but sometimes having it in my HANDS works better.

    I’m certainly reminding myself of this part, though: “Parents of average students might want to consider doing things differently than we did and fight their understandable instinct to constantly push their students to perform better in school.” Thank you.

  • This is 1000% true. We tortured our kids as they went through school, expecting them to perform higher than they were motivated for. And I realize (in hindsight — sorry Danny and Robby) that school can be boring or annoying or dreadful, and if a kid is not excited about playing that game, then so be it. Maybe they’re the sane ones. And I’m a poster child for the underperforming student. I remember being astonished in college that I could actually enjoy learning. Didn’t happen to me until then.And if you are a mother or father of young kids, know that there are all sorts of happy endings to these stories. We thought their underperforming performances all through school were proof that they were going to hell in a handbasket. Older son is now getting his PhD, younger son is about to start his Master’s.

  • And one more thing: I’ve worked with hundreds of kids helping them apply to college, many of them poor-performing students, and there is a place in college for all of them. THERE ARE MORE SEATS IN COLLEGES IN THE US THAN THERE ARE BOTTOMS TO FILL THOSE SEATS. There. Sorry for the all caps, but it had to be said.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      That is SO true. There are so many good schools out there for kids to look at, but they get caught up in the crowd mentality – if everyone else wants to go there, so should I.

  • In our quest to ensure that each of our kids is “in the top percentile,” we forget a non-negotiable statistical fact: by definition, only a small percentage of the population fit there. I think it makes far more sense to look at a kid’s interests, potential, and strengths, and stop the obsessive focus on GPAs, to enable our children to reach their fullest potential–whatever that might be.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Exactly – as long as they find something to strive to succeed at and to care about, that’s what matters.

  • My husband was your son. Graduated with ok grades, went to a small school that was barely a blip on a radar. He is now a VP at a major global company and travels the world. He is on boards of Universities he would have never been accepted to as an undergrad. He chairs major groups in his industry and has been called upon to speak to congress about his field. I would say his high school GPA was a very poor reflection of his abilities.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I love hearing this about your husband. It seems to be true for so many very successful people – their grades really don’t reflect their ability or ambition.

  • Your son is lucky to have such awesome parents! I was always a straight-A student and perfectionist, and my daughter is the complete opposite – and I couldn’t be happier!

  • Kerry

    Thanks so much for this post for the “average” student. Your description of your son could have been mine…disdain for complex literature and encyclopedic recall of sports statistics. Our son did not receive the gift of athletism but is the ultimate fan of those who have it. He does have a gift for writing and speaking, however. In high school he found his passion with an internship with the local ABC affiliate covering sports thanks to a wonderful Journalism teacher that you know…Pamela Luttrell. Our son is a junior in college and works on an all student produced sports show that started airing on TV last week! The key is…find your child’s gift. We all have them. Do not listen to the “white noise” around you. We are looking forward to the future of our “average” son!

  • It’s clear you raised a fabulous son, who did indeed figure out how to motivate himself. THAT is worth patting yourself on the back for. We put so much stock in our kids doing and being things that matter to us. This resonated: “For me, a voracious reader with an English degree, my son’s disdain for literature was both sad and a little terrifying.” It really IS terrifying when our children don’t follow in our footsteps to some degree, isn’t it. Thank goodness your son found his own place and succeeded in what many kids don’t: college graduation in 4 years! Kudos to you all.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Thank you Lisa – I have learned to accept that just because I love books it doesn’t mean my kids will!

  • This struck so many chords, I feel like a player piano. My sixth child (4th boy) is teaching my entire family about education. After siblings graduating from Berkely, UCLA & the University of Tokyo, I’m sure his rough road has been made that much rockier. We don’t compare, but it’s difficult to muzzle others. I wish I could print out this post and use it to give others a little better education about education! Thank you.

  • Sharon you are a rock star. Every parent needs to read this article. Last year when my daughter pulled 4 Bs and 2 As (one of them in P.E.) I was ticked because I knew exactly how much television she watched that semester (can anyone say the acky American Idol?). I’ve realized since I need to take a chill pill. Many people succeed brilliantly without going to an Ivy League and, in fact, even more succeed without going to college at all. In the end it’s her life.

  • My son has a mild learning disability as well – and I struggle with his lack of motivation sometimes. But it’s not his problem, it comes from me. I expect a lot of myself and as a result I expect a lot from him as well. You’re so right – we need to form our expectations based on what their interests are, and not have a set path in mind. They will go where they will – and if we handle it OK, they will be OK.

  • For so many kids high school offers so little. There are very few subjects (compared to what they will find in college) and they are of so little relevance to much of what they will find in the world. College is the making of so many kids, where they find their interests and their maturity. Sharon you have clearly done an incredible job and I hope your experiences help others.

  • Thank you for writing this article! As a high school teacher, I always see the same kids get recognized time after time. I choose to recognize my “average” kids on a daily basis. I was one of those average kids in high school and always felt so left out!

  • Vicky Harinski

    This is the article which I can relate to. Not everyone has a focused student and high school is not meant for All. I hope thAt my college school freshman son finds himself

  • Maria

    Oh my gosh! My son’s high school days sounded EXACTLY like your sons. Now he is an Industrial Engineering college Senior and just completed his first IE internship. He’s doing amazing and I loved reading this because I could completely relate to it.

  • This is such an important post. I wrote something very similar about my son. He worked his butt off throughout high school, but didn’t feel college was for him. Through lots of hard thinking and encouragement from us, he found his passion and is doing amazing! It’s so hard to step back sometimes and let our kids find their way. You’re an amazing parent, and it sounds like your son is an amazing kid!

  • I certainly didn’t have the maturity or discipline to do well in high school. (I was too busy socializing!) College, any beyond, is where I blossomed. I think it’s that way for many kids. Love that your son found his way when the time was right for him. You must be so proud!

  • Yvonne

    I just found your blog….and it is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you!!!

  • I am going to save this excellent post to share with the parents of the private students I tutor and coach. You can’t force a plant to bloom at a certain time. I believe many of these average students are simply late bloomers. They have an entire adulthood to bloom and most do. Many successful business leaders, artists, and innovators were not high school super stars. The right college can provide opportunities for engagement and learning that the typical high school does not.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Thank you so much Evelyn, I’m so glad it resonated with you. And I agree, the right college can make a world of difference.

  • Mom24kids

    I really needed to read this today. My oldest son is a Sophomore and you have described him to a “T”. My husband was very much the same way in high school and is now a successful surgeon. It’s just really hard for me to “accept” the under-achieving because he has a brilliant mind (teacher have even told us they believe he is gifted). I just don’t get it. Maybe that’s the point, I don’t need to. I just need to accept that he may be a late bloomer. He too suffers from ADHD and keeping him focused and on task isn’t very easy unless it’s something he loves. I feel so much more confident after reading your article that, he too, will find something he loves to motivate him in college………just need to get him there first!! Thank you!!

  • Paula

    This article is a gift from Heaven to me…my husband and I have worried so much about our youngest son (17) lately. Your article touched on everything that we have wondered about, worried about and have tried to figure out! You can’t imagine the relief I felt after reading this Sharon. Thank you, thank you!
    I have joined you via email, and look so forward to reading more of your articles.

  • Stephen Wendel

    I just read this article in a FB feed. Extremely well said. I had two sisters each a year ahead of each other and me such that by the time I got their teachers, the teachers expectations were I would be a super student. I too experienced exactly what your son did (high school GPA below 3) and it was not until I got to college that I got interested in anything. I graduated UC Berkeley with a 3.95 in Economics and followed up with an MBA. Have run my own corporation for 25 years now and no one has ever asked me about my high school GPA.

  • Oedgar

    The kids feel this grade pressure, too. Our son, a very bright but not quite 4.0 bright kid with an anxiety disorder, told me he “couldn’t live with himself” if he took a regular, non Pre Ap or AP class. In spite of the fact that he does just well enough that I can see some potential scholarships, I had to put the brakes on his plan to take Pre AP stuff, chemistry, orchestra, and an additional AP history class. It really is all about seeing your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and I had to be honest with myself and know he does not have the time management skills yet (10th grade) to do all that.

    Parents really will save themselves a lot of money and heartache if they let the kids mature and figure things out before packing them off to college if they aren’t ready. My husband, a less than motivated student, went off on his dad’s dime.. and literally partied it all away. He came home and worked low wage jobs after his dad rightfully cut him off. Twenty-two years later, he luckily has a good job but still no degree.

    I see more and more people being open to the idea of a non traditional path to a degree or technical school instead.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Technical school is an option that so many kids could benefit from if only their parents weren’t focused on a degree, I concur. We will always need skilled and trained workers to take care of our homes and our bodies.

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