Marilyn Heins

Portrait of Marilyn Heins

Tammie Graves / Arizona Daily Star/

“My grandson is a junior in high school. He’s very bright and gets good grades without working very hard or at all. He procrastinates, wastes a lot of time, and then stays up late to finish assignments. He’s not interested in much, doesn’t like sports. He can read but doesn’t pick up a book unless he absolutely has to. His only hobbies are video games and social media. His parents and grandparents are all college graduates. He knows we all expect him to go to college. I have put money in his college fund since he was born, but he is lackadaisical about the whole subject. His parents are distraught. How can you tell whether someone is ready for college?”

Bright high school students should be encouraged to go to college and should be helped to become college-ready, both at home and at school. A college degree does not guarantee a good job, but trying to get a job without a college diploma can be pretty tough today, both for those trying to enter the workforce and those who have been working but lose their jobs. However, in order to “make it” at college, a teenager must be able to function independently and responsibly in two domains: academic and personal.

To get the grades needed to stay in college and be awarded a degree, a college student must be academically responsible. This means he: 1) gets to class and concentrates there; 2) takes notes the old-fashioned way or on a laptop (I recently took a class with UA undergraduates and did not see anyone writing except oldies like me!); 3) takes part in discussions; 4) finds information at the library or on the internet; 5) becomes an efficient student, as sitting passively staring at a book won’t cut it, but taking notes or outlining will; 6) prepares for exams and learns from mistakes; 7) asks about and monitors progress and figures out how to get help. Colleges teem with resources to help students who are floundering, but many freshman students don’t realize they need help, let alone that help is available.

College students also need to take personal responsibility. Students must be prepared to do mundane but necessary life tasks on their own, like eating sensibly and getting enough sleep, doing laundry before they run out of clothes, and managing time and money. This takes maturity and stability, because college students, especially those who live in a dorm or on their own, will be confronted with many choices and freedoms.

This can be a challenge for college freshmen who have abruptly switched from high school, where somebody tells them what to do much of the time, to a milieu where nobody does.

Sadly, teens at high risk of doing poorly at college are those who are bright, get good grades in high school without much effort and don’t assume much responsibility around the house.

Parental hovering, nagging, and indulgence do not help. These practices actually hinder the teen’s development of both skills and personal responsibility. Your email reveals that your grandson’s “lackadaisical” approach is upsetting his “distraught” parents as it upsets you and that there is much tension between parents and teen. It is possible, Grandpa, you can play a helpful role.

When teens and parents are stuck in a perpetual war of nagging and door-slamming, sometimes a relative can save the day. Many years ago, a young cousin of mine was driving his parents crazy, just like your grandson is. I suggested he spend the summer at our home four states away. I arranged for a part-time job coaching disadvantaged boys in baseball as my cousin loved working with kids. He taught my 5-year-old son to ride a two-wheeler. Thanks to the World Record Undressing Time Contest, bedtime dawdling became a thing of the past. Son rushed to get into his pajamas to beat the world record when Cousin used a stopwatch. There was no teen-adult arguing. I didn’t nag, he didn’t sulk. This wasn’t magic. It was getting away from the battlefield and living with different adults. It was like rebooting relationships to work.

I know of two sisters that exchanged their teen boys for several summers. Both the families and teens enjoyed respite from arguing. Another family arranged for their teen daughter to spend a month at the home of the mother’s college roommate. Living with another family requires the personal responsibility skills needed at college. Plus, the teen can learn different ways of doing things and interacting with people.

You can try something similar this summer. Ask him to visit to help you with projects at home or at work. Share your passions and hobbies with him. Tell him how you decided on college and how you figured out what to do with your life. Share feelings about the tough times in your life. Take long walks together, talk about the world, become his buddy. Don’t bring up the college issue, wait for him to do so. But let him know you love him and expect him to do something with his life.

Not all youths, even bright ones, are ready for college. The concept of a “gap year” has become popular, especially between high school and college or college and graduate school.

Malia Obama is taking a gap year now and will enter Harvard next year. The gap year is not spent playing video games. Rather, it gives a teenager time to learn new skills, get exposed to different ideas and people, and mature a bit.

A “gap summer“ with an involved grandfather can do the same.

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent, great-step grandparent and the founder and CEO of She welcomes your individual parenting questions. Email for a professional, personal, private and free answer to your questions.