Homeroom: My Daughter Is Lying to Me About School

She says she’s done her work, but her teacher tells me she hasn’t. What should I do?

An illustration of drooping pencils, pens, and a ruler in a jar
Elena Xausa
squiggly pencil

Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at homeroom@theatlantic.com.

Dear Abby and Brian,

I’m writing about my daughter, a seventh grader whom I’ll call Z. Her school has been fully remote since last spring. Z used to love school, but after a year of remote classes, she is totally unmotivated.

I’m terrified that, with high school approaching, she is falling behind. She used to be at the top of her class, but everything has changed in the past year. To make matters worse, sometimes when I ask if her work is done, she lies to me, as I later hear from the teacher that the work didn’t get done. I can’t stand that she’s lying to me.

But as much as I nag or beg or scold or offer raises in allowance if she does better, nothing seems to make a difference.

What should I do?

Ann Arbor, Mich.

Dear Anonymous,

This is a trying time for both children, who are struggling to stay motivated in school, and their parents, who are desperate to support them. Can anyone blame a teenager for feeling overwhelmed or detached? That’s where your focus as a parent needs to be: on her overall well-being. Z’s academic success will follow her happiness.

This mindset should inform your entire approach. Instead of, in your words, nagging or scolding her in an effort to push her to get better grades, give Z a chance to be excited about interests outside of school. By spending time on extracurriculars that she cares about, Z will have an opportunity to reengage with activities she enjoys and build confidence outside of academics. Whether what speaks to her is basketball, singing, religious life, or boxing, encourage her to keep pursuing these interests and provide her with positive feedback for doing so. Right now your anxiety about her future is playing too large a role in your present interactions. Focusing on activities she enjoys will inject more positivity into your relationship.

All of that said, you do need to address her lying. You can lay this out as a nonnegotiable: Tell her that you know what a difficult time this is, but that you prize honesty above all else. Be clear that the more honest Z is, the better you will be able to support her across the board, and, in turn, the more autonomy she will have. Encourage her to let you know when she needs help, when class is boring, and when she can’t focus on what the teacher is saying, because she’s preoccupied. Posting her daily or weekly schedule where it is always visible should help give her a sense of structure and relief, as she’ll know that she can build in a quick bathroom or water break during the class or time of day that’s hardest for her.

Whenever possible, encourage Z to reach out to her teachers with specific questions, as doing so will help her gain understanding of the material and, over time, confidence. Many teachers have felt quite disconnected from their students during the pandemic. Whether separated by physical distance and a computer screen or the inability to see facial expressions due to masks, educators are struggling to get to know their students this year. Many of us are eager for students to reach out to us to let us know what’s difficult, where they need help, or what they are thinking about in general. So if Z is willing to email a teacher, encourage her to do so; we teachers see this initiative as a sign of commitment and self-advocacy. Then discuss setting small daily goals, such as making three comments or asking three questions every school day. These manageable tasks will make it easier for Z to participate, and she may find herself more engaged after these initial entry points into class discussion.

Most of all, try to focus on Z’s emotional life. While your anxiety is understandable, voicing it only breeds self-doubt in Z and causes antagonism in your relationship with her. Giving your daughter a chance to feel better about herself and get through these challenging times will set her up for success in the long run—both inside and outside the classroom.

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