Dear Shimmy,

My husband and I are unsure of what to do with our 9th grade son.  Ever since 8th grade he's been hassling us and hassling us to go to a certain high school which is not really a Yeshiva, and which we really don't feel comfortable with.  So we refused, and though he made a big fuss over it, he did go to Yeshiva high school.  However, he complained so much that my husband told him if it was really a bad fit, we would consider letting him switch.  However, we really don't feel comfortable with him going to this other school.  And now with his constant complaining about how the teachers don't like him and his classmates are weird and nerdy and how unhappy he is, we're not sure if we should let him switch, or make him stay...

Thank you for your help,
Confused in New York

Dear Confused,

As you know, my full time job is as a school administrator, and I can't even begin to tell you how many times students and their parents come to me about this very issue. In truth, I believe that this is a huge issue that goes far beyond a discussion about choice of schools. At the core of the discussion is the critical question, "What do you do when you face a situation that isn't totally working for you?" and I believe that your handling of this challenge together with your son has the potential to teach a great lesson in terms of how we handle adversity. You have already indicated to him that the first step in this situation is to try to "make it work." Based on the amount of complaining you say he's doing though, it doesn't seem like he's really done this crucial first step.

Based on your letter, it seems as if your son decided that he didn't like his school even before he started there. Also, he knew that if he were miserable, he would be able to switch schools. Thus, the fact that he's unhappy at his current school comes as no surprise. In my experience, the students who have the "out" available to them are the most likely to be unhappy because the benefits of being unhappy, which often include getting what they want, are just so great.

Daniel Gilbert and Jane Ebert, two researchers from Harvard University, conducted a study in which participants were allowed to choose an art poster to take home. Half of the participants were told that their choices were final, and the poster they chose could not be exchanged. The other half were told that they would be able to change their minds later and exchange the poster for another. In the end, who was happiest with their choices? Those who believed their decisions were final were happier with their choices than those who were told they could change their minds. According to Professor Gilbert, "When options are open, the mind generates debate. When options are closed, the mind generates satisfaction."1

So, the question that you must first answer is whether you are willing to switch him to this other school despite the fact that he seemingly has not made a full effort to be happy at his current school. You say that you are uncomfortable with this option, but how uncomfortable? If you're really not OK with him switching now, I believe that there is virtually NO WAY he is going to like his current school unless the other option is firmly removed from the table. By that, I don't mean deferring the decision for one year. I mean that his incentive to be unhappy will remain as long as being unhappy will get him out of his current school now or in the future. Internally, between you and your husband, you may agree that down the road you'll revisit the decision, but that is between the two of you. If you dangle the carrot in front of him, I doubt he'll give up on getting it as long as he feels it's within reach. If you do choose to keep him in his current school, you can most likely expect to have an angry, even more unhappy child on your hands for a few days or weeks. This, however, is the only way he will have the best shot at learning how to be happy in his current setting.

On the other hand, if you are willing to switch him to the other school, then it's time to come to some agreements with him. If he is essentially going to "get what he wants," I would hope that he will need to abide by some agreements that you decide upon. Ask yourself: what could he do (or avoid doing!) that would make us more comfortable with his attending this other school?

Your issue is very complex, and I wish that I could offer you an easy answer. Unfortunately, I don't believe that one exists, but I hope that these ideas will help you in rendering a decision that will be in the best interest of your son.


P.S. If you're interested in finding out more about the study mentioned in my letter, Gilbert and Ebert's work was published in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology," Vol. 82, No. 4.

1Jonathan Clements, "The Pursuit of Happiness: Six Experts Tell What They've Done to Achieve It," Wall Street Journal Dec. 6, 2006: D1.