When should forgetful 9-year-old suffer consequences?

Jaye from Madison, New Jersey, asks:

Our nine-year-old son is constantly forgetting things at home. His homework, over which he willingly toils, inadvertently slips from his folder onto the floor, or his lunch is left behind next to where he sat to put on his shoes, or he forgets to wear his cleats to lacrosse practice. He has a hard time socializing (although I’m not sure how cognizant of this he is or how much it affects him) so I want him to bring his lunch in order to maximize his ability to get a good seat at lunch.

I feel badly about his homework since he takes great pride in his academics, and this seems to be a big part of his identity, due to the lack of the social component. My husband says I should just let him suffer the consequences of his absent-mindedness (although my husband also believes that I should suffer the consequences for his own forgetfulness, as I am often scrambling to locate/retrieve forgotten items on HIS behalf, as well). I don’t want to be making extra trips to the school (sometimes once or twice a week!) but how old do you think my child has to be for me to really just let him "suffer"?

Thank you for the email question about your disorganized nine-year-old. It made me smile to hear that the boy was so very much like his father. I suspect that you are not the first woman who has managed both a disorganized son and a disorganized husband. As I frame my reply to you, I will keep in mind that you do not have genetics on your side in this matter. I won’t be able to reassure you by saying, "Oh, he’ll outgrow it" because you won’t believe me. Your son appears to have inherited his father’s brain.

Most boys rely on their parents, usually their mothers, to keep them organized until their brains develop enough to be able to manage all of the tasks they are required to do for schools. The typical boy is likely to be forgetting things up until the age of fourteen or fifteen, though he is likely to know where every card in his baseball card collection is or where his video game discs are. Boys are more organized when it comes to personal items that they really value. Around sixth or seventh grade, moms get tired of doing all of the organizational work for their sons and they tend to let their middle-school sons "face the music" with their teachers. That normal developmental model suggests that it is too soon to let your son "suffer the consequences."

However, your situation is not quite typical. Driving to school to take him his homework once or twice a week is too much. If you are too willing to bail out your son every time he forgets something, he has no motivation to even try to get organized. I think you should start telling him that you are no longer willing to make special trips to school and then help him get organized before he heads in the morning.

If he takes the bus, you should have a checklist by the door where he departs. Before he opens the door you and he should go down the checklist: lunch ("check!"), lacrosse cleats ("check!") homework for math ("check!"), homework for language arts ("check!"). Make him show you that he really has every item before he leaves. This is hard work, and it will take organization on your part, but I believe in the long run it will help him internalize the organizational habits he is going to need in the future. The emotionally difficult part for you will be if he manages somehow to forget something even though you have gone through the checklist with him. You will need to tell your upset son.

If you drive him to school, ask him again when he gets in the car, "Do you have everything?" Make him show you his lacross shoes and his homework, and remind him that you are not going to be driving the rescue route today because you have other things you need to do. When he answers yes, sit quietly for a second and ask again, "Are you sure? I’m not coming back." That’s fair warning.

The emotionally difficult part for you will be if he manages somehow to forget something even though you have gone through the checklist with him. You will have to tell your upset son that you aren’t driving over to school with his homework. That will feel like a betrayal to him the first time, but once he survives that day, he will have learned that forgetting something is, perhaps, distressing but not devastating. That’s an important lesson to learn.

It sounds as if your son is bright and devoted to his school work. That’s great. If, as he gets older, his organizational problems don’t improve, I would get a psycho-educational evaluation for him. He might have some significant problems with "executive functioning," which is a form of non-verbal learning disability. If that turns out to be the case, he might be entitled to get additional organizational support at school.