Care and Feeding

My Kid Is Too Smart for His Homework, and He’s Driving Me Nuts

Parenting advice for a kid who never wants to show his work.

Bored tween flipping through a book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,
I have an 8-year-old son who is really, really smart but really, really stubborn. Although he gets good grades, we fight all the time over schoolwork. He is constantly saying that he doesn’t see the point of some simple task, that it’s stupid and easy, that he hates it. When he does the work, he’s lazy, resents having to do multiple steps on things, and doesn’t follow directions well. Example: They are teaching students to do math a certain way, but he can do it in his head, so “What’s the point of doing it like that if I can just do it and get the right answer my way?” Same thing with spelling. Each day they do a different task with their word list. And each day we get drama and fighting because he “doesn’t see the point” to doing anything other than simply being quizzed on the words. I’ve tried incentives, but he was never reward-oriented. He’s always been a grouchy kid, but school is just turning him into an angry kid. Parent-teacher conferences are this week, and I’m going to bring all of this up, but I would love some ideas.
—Show Your Work

Dear SYW,
I love your son! He reminds me of my husband, who has a Ph.D. in theoretical condensed matter physics and was sent for psychological evaluation as a child due to his stony refusal to participate in coloring, which he felt was a waste of time as he possessed no comparative advantage at it.

The solution to your problem is really quite simple. Grade school is mostly ridiculous busy work and crowd control and marking tasks off things. He doesn’t have to like it; plenty of people don’t. Your son is very pragmatic, so speak his language: “Bartleby, you’re right: School is often extremely aggravating, but your teachers are trying to handle a large number of kids with different ability levels, and that means they must spend time doing things that you might not need or care about. The thing is, school is something you have to play along with to get to the stuff you actually want to do, like [fill in what he wants to do here, be that litigation or options trading or becoming a mercenary], so it’s important to play along. Even if you don’t see the point, jumping through their hoops is how you get the best grades and ultimately how you get to leave the whole system and be an adult. The fastest way out is through.”

Many children who have no time for the nonsense aspects of childhood education can be reasoned with if their best interests are appealed to honestly. When you get to your parent-teacher conference, definitely listen carefully so you can tell your child what parts are most important to play along with, but the more you can frame this as the two of you joining forces to scam his way through elementary school, the better I think it will go. Please let me know when we can invest in his first scheme.

Dear Care and Feeding,
How do you navigate takebacks? As in, you give permission for something and when you find out more you have to revoke permission. There is so much media that my 9-year-old consumes, and sometimes we give the go-ahead on a game or a movie only to change our minds when we learn more about it. The world used to be set in stone in his younger years, but things seem increasingly fluid as he knows more about popular apps and games than we do. Help please.
—No Takebacks!

Dear NTB,
This is something I would not worry about for a single solitary second. Nine is plenty old enough to hear that plans can (and should) change when new information is received: “Jimothy, I know we said you could play Curb-Stomp the Sex Worker, but I just found out there’s a level where your character eats a peanut butter sandwich, which is banned at your school.”

Going forward, make your permission more obviously conditional, and do your due diligence on the games and apps in question. And please avoid giving him unlimited access to YouTube Kids; it’s a real mess in there.

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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are the founding members of our book club, now in its 10th year. We also have three very small children, and the rest of the club members have generously allowed us to host all the club meetings in our home, as finding a babysitter for two toddlers and an infant can be very challenging. We love our book club, and the members are nothing but kind to us. And this is my problem.

One of our members, “Mary,” always feeds our year-old baby without asking us if it’s OK. The baby has some mild food allergies, and thankfully nothing has happened to trigger a reaction. But at our most recent meeting, Mary (and I can’t believe I’m writing this) took a clearly dirty spoon from the sink and fed her with it. My husband was holding the baby at the time, but Mary stood behind my husband’s back and spoon-fed her over his shoulder. To make things worse, the spoon belonged to my oldest son, who had recently recovered from an infection severe enough to need antibiotics. When my husband confronted Mary, her response was, “Kids get each other’s germs. It’ll be fine.”

I would have confronted Mary then and there, but my husband didn’t tell me until book club was almost over. To complicate things, Mary is my brother’s mother-in-law. My mother is also a member of the club. I know my first obligation is to my kids, and I intend to talk to Mary myself, but do I need to give my brother or sister-in-law first crack? Isn’t that the rule of the in-law? Or is just a heads-up enough?
—Book-Club Baby

Dear BCB,
When the edict is something that no reasonable person could possibly argue with, like, for instance, “Please do not feed our baby without our permission,” there is no need to outsource it. It might indeed be sensible to give them a heads-up, however, in case you wind up brawling on the lawn.

I’m not sure from your letter if you have ever delivered a flat “stop feeding our baby” or if you’ve just been dealing with it on a case-by-case basis. But when Mary arrives for the next meeting, you should take her aside and tell her firmly that feeding your baby is off-limits, ending with, “Is that something you can commit to?” If she says “No,” then she’s a ridiculous person and you can ask her to leave. If she agrees, then proceed watchfully.

If she tries it nonetheless, you are now fully within your rights to loudly say, “MARY! I have asked you not to feed the baby!” at which point the power of public shaming is your friend.

I do not know how beloved Mary is within this group or if making a stand here will result in your book club no longer meeting in your home; that’s a possibility to be prepared for, and they are indeed doing you a favor right now. (That’s a lot of small children!) You’ll have to decide what matters most to you; I personally would rather give book club a miss than have Typhoid Mary jamming dirty utensils into my baby’s face, but then, I have never really enjoyed book-club meetings. Best of luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,
Should I make my kids share a room even if there are enough bedrooms for them to have their own? I feel like it makes them closer, but they complain about it. They are boys, age 11 and 10.
—Share and Share Alike

Dear SaSA,
You know who was close? The Menendez brothers. And look how that worked out for their parents.

In all honesty, kids can be remarkably understanding when they need to do things for the good of the family (share bedrooms because there are no extra bedrooms, for example), but they are far less eager to do things For Their Own Good in order to satisfy their parents’ conception of childhood. There’s really not much you can do to create genuine closeness between siblings (though you can definitely accomplish solid work in the opposite direction). Whether siblings will be friends as adults is a murky mystery, and it often has very little to do with how they interacted (or didn’t) as children.

Let them have their own rooms.

—Nicole