I have an only child of 12.5 years. He is very intelligent, but doesn't score well on exams. On questioning it's clear that he understands the topic.

When I restrict something, he argues continuously. This arguing and his stubborn attitude makes me stressed.

His habit of arguments and attitude toward leadership makes him seem aloof. He doesn't adjust in any group. His things are scattered in home.

How could I shape his behavior? How could I increase his concentration? What kind of re-reinforcements can be used in daily life to changing bad habits like excessive playing on computers, watching TV, late night waking, etc.?

  • How much sports/outside play time does he get? Just from your short description, it sounds like he needs to move a whole lot more but has TV/Computer-time. Also, late night waking is not a huge issue... bu he has to learn to fall back asleep!
    – Layna
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 7:29
  • 1
    You need to tell us what you're restricting and why you are restricting it.
    – Bradman175
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 21:21
  • Sometimes it's good to take an electronics vacation. Also, I hope you have a good child safety filter that limits sites visited, and total time on computer. You may also want to share your observations with his doctor, who can have you fill out some short screening questionnaires to see if there's anything unusual about your son, neurologically. Knowledge is power, and if there is something unusual about him,neurologically, there are special techniques that can help your son demonstrate his knowledge more effectively. Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 13:19
  • I agree with @Bradman175 and would even go further: we can only make uninformed assumptions from what you gave us. For all I know, he goes to bed at 10pm, scores a decent B+ at school, plays 1 hour of video games per day with online friends, and sits quietly at the back of the classroom with his bunch of friendly misfits. Nothing perfect, but nothing that'd be troublesome for my expectations. We need to know what's the context, what's happening, and what you expect.
    – haylem
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 20:28

2 Answers 2


He sounds a lot like my son. Thirteen, argues with everything, does not do well on tests even though he knew the material when we quizzed him the night before, plays computer games to excess...

We allow him to play as much as he wants if all chores and homework are done and as long as he is able to keep his grades up. If he violates the rules, he loses electronics for a day. Or more. Basically, you need to set up the rules and then enforce them. Our son knows beforehand what is expected of him; we don't want him to feel that we are tacking on extras to keep him from playing games, and once he is done he is able to use his free time as he chooses.

One of our expectations is that he will not be sullen or argumentative if we have to remind him that he hasn't done a chore. We don't expect him to pretend to be happy about it, but we do expect that he will attend to it immediately and without drama. If his attitude gets bad we may take away electronics until it mends. This also applies to situations where we are going on a family outing; he is expected to participate.

One thing that really helped was that I started taking him to Boy Scouts. They are a very inclusive organization and make an effort to get everyone involved. He gets more outdoor / exercise, makes friends and Scouting has done really good things for his character, especially his sense of responsibility.

Another thing that we started doing was playing Pokemon Go. This is something that we can do together as a family, and we all get exercise. We go out somewhere and walk around catching Pokemon and working up an appetite, then we go out to a restaurant (kids get to vote). Fun for the family, and because it is an electronic game he's more enthusiastic about it.

  • "Our son knows beforehand what is expected of him", good point. Also great tie in to building an appropriate relationship with your own kids which includes fun. I feel like too many times parents are so relieved a kid is no longer dependent on them that we tend to lose that relationship and start to focus more on what we want to do and start to ignore the kid more. At least I went through that phase and have a tendency to go back to it as I 'sense' potential free time and think of all the things I want to do.
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 19:58

First Things First: That Kid Sounds 100% Normal

He sounds like what he is: a millennial 12yo. I wouldn't worry too much about it. :)

  • Argues all the time? Check.
  • Dumps things where ever he sees fit? Check.
  • Does not give a damn about anything? Check.
  • Underuses his abilities? Check.
  • Normal teenager? Check.

Action Plans

Gamify His Life

Him being a millennial 12yo also gives you the perfect key to his motivation: gamify his life.

It's simple but tried and tested. The only way it doesn't work is if you miss the mark and make it sound patronizing to him.

I'd recommend to go read this cute comic, which explains it better than me:

Doodle Alley - On Gamification (1)


12yo may be a bit old for this particular tool, but I've been using Habitica with my 4yo and 7yo and it works pretty well:

Habitica - Gamify Your Life!

I've setup their own campaigns and regular tasks to follow and they're pretty happy to do them now. And if they're not done when comes the time to count the points before going to bed, they quickly rush to do them (not ideal, but better than nothing). For their age groups, I use daily tasks for their music practice, brushing their teeth, cleaning up their rooms, negative points for bad habits (leaving things on the floor, not going to bed on time, etc...). I adjust the difficulty of the task for the age.

Sadly Habitica does not have a "parent" account to control the kids' tasks, which I find a bit too bad. It wasn't really intended for this use case, actually, but I use it for this and have recommended it to others who also find it neat to use with their kids.

Habitica may be too simplistic for your son, but that's the general idea anyway. Maybe he'll like it, maybe he'll even get friends to get on it.

Find a way to turn doing what he has to do into a game, or into something that's part of a game and where doing the tasks counts as stepping stones towards a goal.

Khan Academy

You mention he's intelligent, but maybe not so interested in some topics. Maybe he needs to picks the topics.

Have you tried to get him to take a look at Khan Academy? He could look at topics he finds interesting in there, and also use the platform to improve in other topics where he as difficulties.

I've also been using this for 2 years now with my 7yo. For basic things, and he obviously needed a lot of chaperoning at first (especially when he didn't know how to read), but his interest hasn't waned and I expect it will last for quite some time.

He can have his own account, and you can also review his activities with a parent account.

By the way, Khan Academy also has a bunch of helpful resources, notably documentation on:

Your Long-Term Objectives

In the long-term, what you want to do is to improve on a few fronts (not necessarily on all of them at once):

Expand His Horizons

Maybe restrictions don't work and school work does not interest him because he has not found yet what really motivates him. Try to expand his horizons.

Drag him out of the house - possibly giving him a choice of different things to choose from, so he's part of the process and does not feel like he's being actually "dragged" - and actively try to discover stuff he's not used to.

Our interests change over time. Maybe he used to like something, but now seeks totally different things.

Entertainment, culture, travels, shopping... whatever works.

On Restrictions

What do you currently do to restrict the late-night activity and TV time?

I'm generally against timers and parental controls, actually, but surely if you unplug the TV and internet box (or at least shut down the wifi), and his smartphone does not have either data or even mobile network connectivity after 9 or 10pm (see with the carrier), and the computers are turned off, then he won't have much to do except for picking up a book.

Lead By Example

I don't know you so I'm not saying you don't. But I've often notice that parents expect their kids to do things they don't do themselves. And while the defense of "but I'm a grown up and have stuff to do, and I know better" might be valid, oftentimes it's only a justification.

Turn off your phone and computer. Do your chores. Go to bed on time. Maybe don't have the same limits, but be sure he sees you also have your limits and you stick by them.

On Social Aptitudes

Relationship to Authority

His habit of arguments and attitude toward leadership makes him seem aloof.

Arguing is a good thing, if you have reasons to do it. And generally we do have reasons, even if they are misguided ones. Knowing when to drop it is good as well though, but that's a lot to ask from someone if they feel misunderstood.

I'd recommend to take a step back and put yourself in his shoes: ask yourself whether he has a reason for arguing and challenging authority. More often than not, kids have a reason. We just don't see or don't want to see it.

A side note, and maybe I read too much into this and it's just a terminology thing: It's interesting that you use the word "leadership". I've not heard this term used often when dealing with kids actually ("authority", "parental figures", is more commonly used). At 12yo, I wouldn't expect that the kid needs "leadership". He needs a framework, some guidance, and a safe and comfortable support group. He does not need to be led. Again, maybe I read too much into this.

Relationship with Peers

He doesn't adjust in any group.

That's more problematic in my opinion. What groups has he tried to get involved with? Any sports? Any music groups? Friends?

Surely a 12yo has friends of sort. They can be friends at school, friends from another activity, friends he sees only on week-ends, neighbors he spends time with, or even online friends.

There must be at least some people he likes to interact with in one way or another, whether analog or digital. Find it and figure out why it works with that group and what appeals to him.

If he does not have any groups of friends, then it's time to find activities and try to get him to make some friends.

His things are scattered in home.

Several ways to approach this:

  • His room, his rules. Common areas, common rules.
  • Pick up your things or lose them - temporarily or permanently (extreme, but generally effective).
  • Make him understand what it would feel like if everybody left their things everywhere, including his room.

On School Work and Marks

On questioning it's clear that he understands the topic.

Does he really, though?

It's really easy to:

  • think you understood something when you didn't,
  • have someone think you understood something when you didn't,
  • think someone understood something when they didn't.

The best way to check that a topic is fully understood and mastered is to teach it to someone else.

I was a lousy kid at school. Wasn't stupid, was quite interested in most topics, and for all accounts all my teachers thought I was a serious student trying his best when I really wasn't (I apparently just manage to look very focused and serious when I'm in fact 2 light years away), and hard-working enough to bolt down and pass when needed. But I learned quickly that I was kidding myself when I was thinking that I understood the topics.

Starting having to teach others made me a lot more understanding of my lack of understanding.

Get him to do his homework with other groups of teens, and find a tutor, even if only to roll the ball with him. If a neighbor has a younger kid, have your son tutor him so he's in the other role as well.


Have a heartfelt one-to-one with him in a casual setup (say, over dinner, or after watching a movie, when the mood is light). Don't ambush him, don't patronize him, don't express concerns. Show genuine interest.

Ask him what he would like to be doing right now, and what he wants to be doing later.

Ask him why he thinks he's not doing well in school.

Ask him why he stays up late.

Ask him if he thinks he spends too much time in front of the TV or computer.

Ask him why he thinks he spends so much time on front of the TV.

Then work it out with him. While you can gamify some of his life and use hidden levers, it's better if it's his plan as much as yours.

Food for Thought

Your question actually gives us very little context and insight to answer properly and in a way adapted to you and your kid. We don't know:

  • your social and financial situation,
  • the context of your family circle,
  • his grade,
  • his current extra-curricular activities (sports, centers of interests, time spent with out per week...),
  • your expectations and the current metrics, like these relating to:
    • appropriate bed-time,
    • appropriate screen-time,
    • appropriate scores.

We can only assume from what you gave us. For all I know, he goes to bed at 10pm, scores decent B+, and plays 1 hour of video games per day. Nothing perfect, but nothing that'd be troublesome for my expectations. We need to know what's the context, what's happening, and what you expect.

Helpful References

Not sure whether any of these are "industry standards" or anything, but I found them interesting and worth reading to pick and choose bits you like:

  • @anongoodnurse: Thanks for the edit. But I wonder why you're ok with the habitica screenshot but not with the khanacademy banner? The latter definitely was not an "ad", I simply wanted something more visual than a logo - actually I was looking for a screenshot of their parenting dashboard). Regarding the copyrighted material, copyrighted does not mean unfit for reuse and distribution, and it's been noted on numerous SE sites that most strips fall under fair use (and I link directly to the authors's sites every time). But I won't undo these if you don't approve.
    – haylem
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 21:01
  • And to whoever downvoted, a reason might be nice, as I'd be happy to know what you take offense with, how you see this as unhelpful, and what I can do to improve it.
    – haylem
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 21:02
  • Personally, I think the Habetica screenshot is unnecessary, but don't have a solid reason for removing it. I think it minimizes the answer, in effect reducing the impact of your words to the level of a cartoon, and a not very helpful one at that. Thanks for respecting the edit. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 21:08
  • @anongoodnurse: Noted. However I think the screenshot helps to see what the tool is like and can do for you (though obviously it's limited). Also, it's a complex question requiring in my opinion a lot of words to answer it properly... and from experience, sadly, people don't read long answers - even if they're the ones originally asking for help - if you don't make it attractive. Not saying you should sprinkly it with Nyan Cats to keep them awake either, but giving visual illustrations usually help (and it's especially relevant for a post taht is itself partially about learning).
    – haylem
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 21:17
  • If you can show me top posts on SE that take this approach (I have never seen any myself), I will reconsider. This isn't a blog site. It's supposed to be a scholarly Q&A site, though on parenting, we give a lot more leeway than on most of the other sites in the network. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 21:26

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .