When Your Kids Hit a Rough Patch

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The VP of Operations (aka my youngest daughter) had been struggling with her grades. Junior high is never easy, and even this bright kid was rowing hard to keep her grades above C-level. When an unexpected surprise hit us, two days before the end of the school year, we had a decision to make. The summer was going to start with a rough patch.

Chris Westfall and the VP of Operations

With the VP of Operations

The end of the school year was filled with lots of great adventures: a lead role in the school play, a trip to New Jersey to see big sister, and a two-day school-sponsored field trip, called the “Tour of Texas”. With all those distractions, grades had become less and less of a priority. But we were watching – online – and tracking the progress, when we saw that two critical assignments hadn’t been turned in. My daughter took the assignments to school, and turned them in at 1:30pm.

The only problem? It was two days before the end of the school year. And, on this day, the grade books were officially closed at 1:00pm.

Those thirty minutes – and a locked up grade book –  made for a real rough patch.

We had been working, as a family, to make sure her grades stayed high throughout the year. Earlier in the semester, when she didn’t carry A’s and B’s, she lost an important privilege.

We took away her cell phone.

Not surprisingly, her grades improved.

She began reading books again.

As her grades improved, she earned the right to have her cell phone.

Then the rinse cycle started all over again. >:-(

Now we were faced with the number one dilemma I didn’t want to confront: namely, her grades had hit the dumpster just as summer was starting. The rules were clear: bad grades, no phone. And so, the summer started with her phone in her mom’s dresser drawer.

Seemed a little cruel, quite frankly. After all, I’d worked hard to give my kid a nice cell phone. I wanted her to have the best technology, and know that she had access to all the ‘bells and whistles’ of apps and more. I guess that’s why I didn’t want to face my role as The Enforcer. But I had to keep my word, and face the fact that our “family policy” was forcing a harsh punishment.

Because we had discussed this exact scenario – my wife, my daughter and I – as “the one thing that can not happen.”

And yet, here we were.

I was not happy.

With no grades in sight – how could she earn back her cell phone?  That’s when we devised a plan.


The Two Sisters

Thing 1 and Thing 2

My oldest daughter made a suggestion. “Why don’t you let the VP of Operations come up with a plan, so that she can earn back her cell phone?”

Clever idea.

And that’s what we did. Here are the exact steps we took, and the results:

  1. You make the list of tasks. Not me. The VP of Operations had to come up with chores, and these chores would be assigned a point value. Some examples: Folding socks – 1 point. Reading a book with >100 pages: 6 points. Take out the trash (all wastebaskets): 2 points. My daughter chose the tasks and my wife assigned point values.
  2. Get to 100. It seemed to make sense: 10 weeks in the summer, and we assumed that our little one would get about 10 points per week. We have been bad about asking or expecting chores in the past – we’ve erred on the side of “fun” for our kids. Maybe you have too..? Unlike the expectations that I had when I was growing up (there weren’t many, I wasn’t raised in a work camp, but I did have more responsibilities than I have given to my kids) my daughter has never been much of a “chore” person. We thought she would slow-roll her way to 100 points.
  3. Chart Your Progress. I bought some construction paper, sticky notes, and colored markers. My daughter built the chart. She wrote down the list of tasks and point values. To the right, she put down the weeks of summer – right up until the start of school. An old-school spreadsheet, she would total each week at the bottom and each task at the right, so that everyone could see how things were going.

The Results

Last week, around June 16, my daughter reached 100 points. She got her cell phone back.

The Big Board Helped My Kids out of a rough patch

The exercise was a wild success. She completed the tasks and got to 100 points in almost 75% faster than we expected.

My daughter cleaned, organized, sorted and hustled.

She controlled her numbers, built the chart, handled the work.

The ownership was even more impressive than the result.

What we thought would take 10 weeks took less than four. Why?

Booker T Washington said, “Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him.”

I would add, “Or her”.


Here are the key elements that led to the outcome:

    • We were serious about the punishment. The threat of removing the cell phone was not an empty one. We had taken her phone away in the past. We had talked, at length, about how we did not want to have bad grades going into the summer. Truth about the consequences let everyone know the “if-then” of the situation. Even though my wife and I were surprised by the last-minute snafu, we knew what we had to do. We had discussed it – all of us, together. We were prepared for the worst, even though we didn’t expect it. (Until it arrived).
    • The Prize was Important. My daughter loves loves LOVES her cell phone. Without a goal that is a meaningful reward, this plan would not have worked. You’ve got to start with a goal that means something, a kid that’s willing to take action, and the willpower to take away the prize if there’s no results.
    • Everything Belonged to Her. My daughter controlled the game, the setup, the outcomes, and the results. The rules were clear. The game was hers to play – not something that mommy and daddy created, or some artificial construct. She built it. She did the work. She conquered the objectives that she set for herself.

I learned a lot about ownership by going through this exercise.

Whatever we do with other folks, we have to give them a stake in the outcome. Psychologists call this “intrinsic motivation”, or an “internal locus of control” – but I call it the only way to get anything done. Real motivation doesn’t come from the outside. If you want to harness the hearts and minds of the people you care about, get them involved in creating their own solutions. Working together doesn’t mean doing the work for someone, or spoon feeding them the bits and bytes of the task at hand.

It’s a curious paradox: when you want someone to give you something – something important – you’ve got to give them something first.


A reward that’s ‘at risk’.

And a stake in the outcome.

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