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“Why Won’t You Study?” Children, Schoolwork and Conflict

4 minute read

When we have a baby, we don’t imagine that we’re going to end up locked in a struggle with our child over their academics. We believe we’ll encourage them to do their best, and they will indeed do their best, and we’ll be proud of them whatever they end up doing. (Of course, if they turn out to be successful and wealthy, so much the better.)

Yet, more often than not in this hyper competitive world, we end up in a nasty struggle with our children, worrying about their futures and thus insisting they apply more effort to their studies. For their part, it seems, they’re oblivious to our fears and are drawn irresistibly to their screens and their friends.

Here’s an interview with a fellow counsellor, Falguni Mather, and her story of how she resolved a struggle that was driving a wedge of anger and resentment between her and her child.

Tim: Tell me what happened between you and your son.

Falguni: My son is now 20, but when he was 11 or 12, it was really tough between us. It got to the point where it was almost difficult to be in the same room with each other. He was an average student, and he just didn’t seem to care about his studies. It wasn’t that I wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer or super successful in any way — it was just a feeling of “Oh my God, he’s not interested, what does that mean? What’s this going to do to the rest of his life?”

T: How did that play out between the two of you?

F: There was something about him not being very good at his French and Math specifically that bothered me. I was always nagging him about doing his French verbs. I’d print them out and paste the sheet on the wall, and quiz him afterwards - he never knew all of them, and this really bothered me. He wouldn’t talk to me much, he’d come home from school, go into his room and shut the door. There was a lot of disconnection. There was a lot of anger, although not expressed. There was silence. At mealtimes, as soon as he’d finished his last bite he’d want to leave the table and go to his room.

T: What were you doing in response?

F: I was constantly on his case. I’d surprise him by opening the door to his room to see if he was studying or if he was on his computer. I could see him swiping on his screen so I knew he’d switched screens. I was just this tyrant of a parent. Every time I’d go into his room I had this expectant or angry attitude. And in return there was anger and fear from him. We had all these emotions flying around. Now, looking back, I have so much empathy for what he was going through, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the same room as me.

T: What else happened?

F: Well, for example, the French tutor would be in the living room, my son would be in his room, and I’d say to my son, “Aren’t you supposed to be outside with the tutor?” And he’d say “Yeah I just came to get my pencil.” But the truth was he was just killing time.

T: What else did this make you feel, besides anger?

F: Fear. Out of control. Like I was supposed to be doing something to fix what I thought was wrong with him. And I did do something! For example, I taught myself algebra from his books and the internet. And I hated math in school. I taught myself so I could sit with him and teach him so he could be better at it. So I was teaching myself to do something I’d hated doing my whole life. It felt like I had to DO something.

T: So there was a huge sense of responsibility.

F: Lots of pressure, yes. If he was not OK it meant that I had done something wrong. So I had a lot of guilt. And a lot of worry about his future. I couldn’t understand how it would work out. I could see him being disinterested for the rest of his life and I thought “Oh no, what’s that going to do for him?”

T: It must have been really tough. Living with guilt, anger and the sense that if you didn’t fix this kid his life was going to be ruined.

F: I’m sure there were also good times between us then. But there was so much angst, it overshadows that. I’m grateful I was able to change things around for us.

T: How did you change things?

F: So in one of my counselling trainings I raised the problem as something I wanted to work on. When we started exploring my feelings, it brought up two memories from my own school days. Interestingly, I was really, really bad at Math and French. I remember being pulled out in front of the whole class and my failed test paper being held up, and my 13 out of 100 marks being announced, and all the shame and humiliation. I was 11 or 12 at the time. Later on, I failed my French and that caused me a lot of anxiety and trouble in my schooling.

T: And then?

F: It was an epiphany for me. My conflict with him was about Math and French, which were the two subjects that were most traumatic for me. Our whole conflict was really about my stuff, not his. I didn’t care about his other subjects. I don’t even remember what else he was studying. Now, it wasn’t even that my son was particularly bad at Math and French. He was the same in all the subjects, as I recall. But nothing else bothered me except those subjects. It was so huge, so all encompassing. The whole situation got put into perspective. It was awful and good at the same time.

T: What was awful?

F: That I’d been putting so much pressure on him, and myself. And that I’d been doing things in the wrong way in an attempt to do them in the right way. Of course I was doing my best. But me learning algebra wasn’t the solution!

T: Right. Him learning algebra was the solution.

F: And he was doing fine, he was passing. He never failed a single subject. He actually flourished at the end of the school. He got an award for being one of the top five at the end of the year for his results. He turned around. We make these assumptions about children, that how they are now is how they’ll always be. But they’re growing, they’re changing, they’re experimenting too.

T: You saw him being not engaged at age 11 and you projected that for the rest of his life instead of saying “It’s just a stage”.

F: Absolutely. And then I took it all upon myself. When I had this realization I took the time to see that it was my issue. I made peace with it. Today I can talk about me getting 13 out of 100 in Maths and laugh about it. But at the time…even as an adult there was so much shame about it that I’d been carrying without knowing. Understanding that it was my shame about me helped me to see my son as a separate person, rather than expecting him to be me. I had been wanting him to excel in Maths which was my weakness, and know all his verbs in French which was also my weakness.

T: He was kind of a do-over for your life. He was going to wipe out your failures.

F: Exactly. That’s what we tend to do a lot of, we parent from the experience of our own lives. We let our children’s behaviors, achievements and failures trigger our own fears and rules of acceptance. When we’re not parenting consciously, we tend to expect them to do-over what went wrong for us. I see that with other parents I work with.

T: What did you do differently after this realization?

F: I stopped his French tutor. I stopped walking into his room unannounced. But it was mostly the way I started being with him that was different. I was able to empathize rather than criticize. I could be with him, rather than be a tyrant. I’d say “If you’re struggling, what would you think about talking to your teacher about it, maybe he can help?” I let him be part of his process rather than being in control of his process. And then I’d let go of the outcome. I had to let him find out about himself. I’ve learned this through the big lesson of “Who is this really about?” This is my baseline when I’m parenting my children. It helps me to step back and gain perspective. When I’m able to do it I’m such a different parent. We’re not the know-alls. There’s so much to learn from our children if we allow that.

Falguni Mather is a Hong Kong based therapist. She provides parenting classes as well as individual therapy. For more information, her website is


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