Second semester senior year, when the livin’ is easy. College apps done, offers accepted, housing deposit paid. It’s all just an easy downhill coast to graduation now, isn’t it?
The needle scratch for me came with an email from high school that my son was on academic probation. An incomplete in one class, several missing assignments in another, an unexpected C. This from a high achieving kid who has been self-motivated and industrious for his entire academic career.
I knew the diagnosis instantly: early stage high school senioritis. I was only mad at myself for failing to anticipate it.
This isn’t my first time at the rodeo, after all. Our oldest son was the kind of kid who always found a new way to catch us off guard, usually with some incomprehensible, self-sabotaging move that would enrage me with its sheer avoidability. Emails home from school usually took the form of, “Your son hasn’t even started the term paper due last week which represents his entire grade this semester.” Or, “I cannot submit a grade for this class because he has not turned in the two point self-evaluation form.”
Taking It Personally: How Could He Do This to Me?
I am not proud, but I took these failings as a personal affront.
How could he do this to me? Didn’t he know how much anxiety this provoked? He made it to graduation, thanks to some hardcore nagging and an understanding English teacher (thanks, Mr. Lauer). But it wasn’t pretty and it definitely wasn’t a parenting hall of fame moment.
When our second was a senior, she at least had looming AP exams to keep her diligent and honest until the end of April. After that, it was over. She could barely drag herself out the door every morning. She was suffering from mental exhaustion from 12 years of relentless academics. Add to that her loathing of everything associated with high school—her uniform, the school food, the demanding teachers. Plus the excitement of nebulous, inchoate college plans which were now solidifying into reality. How could finishing those 20 school-mandated community service hours possibly compete with that?
An Opportunity to Teach My Son Resilience
Well, with experience comes wisdom.
The email was an opportunity. I seized the moment to teach my son a valuable skill. (He’s going to need this in college.) We’ve all heard of resilience: the ability to bounce back from failures or disappointments, to adapt to difficult circumstances that you can’t change.
I’ve read so many stories about all the ways that late adolescents and young adults are too emotionally fragile, too brittle to handle everything from bad grades, stress, even everyday bumps in the road, because they lack basic coping skills. College administrators report that we have raised a generation of young people “who have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it … without adult intervention.”
Teens who are resilient can learn from difficult or challenging situations and become stronger. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The question for me has always been this: where is the safe place to fail so you can become resilient? It isn’t geometry in tenth grade—that’s too important a year for college admissions to let them fail. It sure isn’t junior year with three AP classes and studying for the SAT or ACT. Where do we give our teens the space to mess up so they can learn to bounce back?
Second semester senior year is a safe time to learn some resilience without major consequences.
When he got home, I calmly asked him what was going on, told him he needed to get caught up, and that I was confident he would. The fact that he was ashen and looked sick to his stomach made me feel good. He spent the next few days hustling to turn in those late assignments and told me, “This was the wakeup call I needed.”
A little brush with failure is good. I didn’t freak out, he figured out how to recover without too much pain, and most importantly, we now have one slightly more resilient young man who will be better equipped in college to deal with the challenges of bad lab partners and demanding professors. Thank you, high school senioritis.