Virginia Ironside's dilemmas: How can we make my son a good student?

From punishment to praise, this reader has tried almost everything to stop her son performing badly at school. But nothing's worked so far. What to do?
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Dear Virginia,

My son’s not doing well at school. He’s nine and he had a really bad report last term. My husband’s always felt that coming down on him like a ton of bricks and punishing him is the way to get him to work, but it doesn’t seem to have much effect. It just makes him miserable. But certainly encouragement and praise hasn’t worked.  I spent all last year telling him how well he was doing, and it had no effect at all. Do you think bribing him might work? We think it might be worth a try, but my instinct tells me it’s not a good idea.

Yours sincerely,


Virginia says...

The reason that punishment and shouting doesn’t work is that it makes people frightened. And the more frightened we are, the more tense and narrow we get. To absorb knowledge, we need to be open, relaxed and secure. So although your son might appear to work a bit harder with the threat of punishment, whatever he learns won’t stay in mind for long, and he’ll find the problems he’s set much harder to solve. I’m a keen crossworder, and the difference between my performance if I’m calm and happy and miserable and tense is enormous.

However, indiscriminate praise is also a pretty hopeless way of helping a child to learn. If, for instance, he always comes last in a race, telling him he’s a brilliant runner isn’t going to make any difference. It’s a lie – and therefore won’t carry any weight. It’s why, when we’ve just staggered up from a week with flu, with a dreadful hangover, the comment that we’re looking great won’t wash. It’s patently pure flattery.

After you’ve checked with the school to ensure he’s not under pressure from bullying or stress, give honesty a go. You can praise him for trying – but only if he is trying. You can suggest that he might have arrived at a correct answer if he’d taken a bit more trouble. You can say “geography’s not your best subject, so let’s find a way to make it easier to absorb,” without denting his self-esteem. The moment he knows you’re on his side, that you understand his problems and his strengths (and if he disagrees with you, listen; he may know himself better than you do), the easier it will be for him to open up and get the work done. Before he can be calm, open and receptive,  you, too, must be calm, open and receptive.

Now I think it’s hard for parents to get themselves into this state of serenity. You’re just as anxious as your son when he gets things wrong. When he simply can’t understand why three times four is 12, you understandably feel frustrated and angry and disappointed – and unless you’re certain you can make sure you don’t show any of these emotions, I’d try to leave teaching him to a third party. You could get a tutor in simply to help him learn – not someone who’ll train him in a particular subject, just someone patient and relaxed who can make him blossom.

You don’t make a plant grow by stamping on it. Nor does it help if you try tugging it upwards. And you certainly don’t offer it money or treats. No, you have to create as nurturing an environment as possible and hope, then, to see your son flourish. 

Readers say...

Rewards, not bribes

Is your son working below his capabilities, not trying, and being uncooperative? Or did he just get lower results than you were happy with? Many children try hard, and make progress, but are not high-flyers academically. If this is your son, and his report also said what a kind, thoughtful little boy he is, I would focus on that rather than his academic results. But if he’s not working hard enough and could do better, perhaps you need to ask if he has any problems at school – sometimes low achievers are scared of being bullied and just want to be one of the crowd. Or he could be struggling to understand some of the work. I don’t think bribery is a good idea, but rewards are – perhaps a trip to the cinema for a good week’s work, or being allowed to stay up later on Friday.

Ros, by email

It’s down to him

The only lasting work ethic for a child will be one he imposes on himself. Talk to your son about what he thinks should change and give him a say in how to progress. Make it clear you’re willing to inconvenience yourself to provide a productive environment for him, and that you and your husband want his success rather than his obedience.

Henry, by email

Next week’s  dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I’ve just ended a 10-year relationship and the last thing I want to do is to get involved with another man for the moment. The problem is that I’ve always been highly sexed and I really miss it. A friend jokingly suggested I ring an escort agency and find out if they would send me round a man for sex. Of course, I was horrified at first, but the more I think of it the more appealing the idea gets. I’m against women being exploited for sex, but somehow this doesn’t seem the same. Do you think I should give it a try?

Yours sincerely,



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