If there is chemistry PTSD then I have it. The tutor I hired for my son to get through the AP test has the same calm, soothing voice of my high school chemistry teacher.

I remember writing poetry during lab while my partner did the experiment. Mark was my lab partner. I’d known him since first grade — when I was the only kid in town who could read the adult dictionary. “You emphasize the second syllable,” I’d tell someone trying to show me they too could read the dictionary.

I felt so in control. Powerful. (Emphasis on the first syllable.) If you focus on things the teacher hasn’t taught yet then the teacher leaves you alone.

Third grade: The first week we studied flags of Europe. I memorized all the world’s flags and colored so many flags on index cards that magic marker covered my hand when I raised mine to say, “The answer is Switzerland’s flag. And I think the answer to the question you’ll ask next is Norway’s flag. And could I just go to the library and memorize populations?”

Scare the teacher. Make her think you will be impossible to teach. She’ll always let you go to the library. The librarians love the kids who read quietly.

Mark says, “Don’t touch the beaker.” We have an understanding that I am a lab partner with non-participating status, but sometimes I get curious about the stuff that’s colored.

“Move,” he says. But in sort of a nice way and I start thinking maybe he likes me. Maybe I should go to chemistry more often so I’ll have a boyfriend.

I remember all this while I am in a windowless classroom with my son and his AP chemistry tutor. My son knows chemistry concepts very well but he knows nothing of test-taking strategies.

The tutor says. “Go back and check your work.”

My son says, “I don’t have any.”

My son is a king of doing math in his head but he’s studying for a test in the show-your-work kingdom.

So I bought a ten-hour package. Each hour is $189. I tell myself there was no point in paying for a chemistry tutor all year if he can’t do well on the AP test. For a homeschooler, knowing concepts but not testing well is like the tree falling in the woods.

We argue constantly and I go through a bottle of Riesling with each chapter.

Do good chemists make good parents? I hope so because I am learning more chemistry this week than I learned in one year of high-school chemistry. I keep telling myself I have to listen better and take better notes because every hour of tutoring I can do myself I will save $189. (More evidence that it doesn’t work to pay kids to get good grades.)

The tutor for this week teaches how to sort questions by type, and how to manage time by grouping. So I practice cello with my younger son while my older son takes more practice tests. The hotel room is so full of homeschooling that I’m suffocating, but getting a second hotel room for the week would cost ten hours of tutoring.

I see my son is stuck. I tell him to text the tutor for help. He screams at me that he’s not stuck. We have invented a modern mashup of Bach’s church music and screeching family fights.

Next we walk the dog and I quiz off flash cards. I tell my son walking the dog refreshes his mind. But really it’s because he gets so angry when I try to help with chemistry and I know he won’t throw a fit in public.

“Glyceric,” I say.



Harrumph. Growl. Hand slam on sides. “You know so little about chemistry this isn’t even productive! It’s glyceric. The emphasis is on the second syllable.”

He storms off. I pay for more hours. Because three days before the AP chemistry test is not the time to be thrifty in homeschooling.

14 replies
  1. May
    May says:

    Let him fail as to humble him haha!
    Nothing got me more motivated to “learn the rules” then the actual percentage/marks at the end, even for subjects I didn’t necessarily care about because marks tap into intj arrogances.

    Also, money for grades worked for me (10 bucks for every A, 20 for every perfect). Or at least.. I made my parents pay me for good grades. It was a good system for me! Maybe research for “average kids” when your son is technically 2% of all mbti types and on the spectrum to boot is not all that useful. I think for intj, once you have them set a goal, it’s almost good enough, as they will wrangle around to figure out how to achieve that goal within the parameters of the goal (make sure it’s good parameters because intj can get into shady business like cheating just to say they got it done).

    • May
      May says:

      Does he read the comments in your posts? Tell him to read mine and see if he agrees.
      Can he be bribed with anime/game fanart.
      I will draw him something within a 2-hour timeframe if you do well on your AP Chem exam lol.
      /bribing kids

      • May
        May says:

        I would like to add that the best part is: if he doesn’t do well, I also don’t have to do anything because I am super lazy and haven’t drawn a thing in months! Win-win both ways!

  2. Dana
    Dana says:

    My daughter-in-law paid a tutor to help her get her ACT math score up and it paid off with a full ride scholarship.

  3. FH
    FH says:

    Re: paying for grades

    I know someone who does this in a way that seems to work in his family. Each kid signs a contract. Every semester, each A is worth something like $100, each B much less but still something, each C is a wash, and each D or F incurs debt. The dad, who is not rich, says paying big for top grades is worth it because he makes the money back with interest in college merit scholarships. It’s worth it to his kids because it’s real money. Getting straight A’s all year for money doesn’t seem so onerous when one is a teenager looking forward to $1400.

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Not everyone will have the same motivators whether internal or external. I know plenty of kids where external motivators are HUGE and on the flipside finding kids who are internally motivated are much harder.

    Adding executive function issues to the list? I mean if anyone has any ideas that have actually worked for kids who struggle with EF that would be great!

    ps the thought of me spending 2k on tutors makes me ill… I hope the payoff is significant! Then you’ll have your answer! Let us know how it goes.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      I tried paying my son to get better grades. It didn’t work. He wasn’t extrinsically motivated enough to get the grades in the first place, and somehow I think that’s correlated with not being extrinsically motivated enough to earn the money.

      He’s working much harder this last quarter, now that it doesn’t matter. He’s already been accepted to a school he likes much better for the fall, and I think now he’s interested in better developing skills that will help him succeed there. His grades at his current school (from teachers he doesn’t respect) continue to be irrelevant to him.

      It may be hard to find intrinsically motivated kids, but I think it’s even harder to figure out their motivations once you have them.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      Extrinsic motivators can work for the short term, mostly for getting through drudgery. Intrinsic motivation is a slower road because it relies on children developing their own desire to do something. It may not appear as effective in short term achievements like tests and grades, but their effect is intended for long term outcomes. It’s about the pattern that is established. A cash payment might work a few times, but will not tap into a love of chemistry or an interest in developing skills for lifelong learning or a desire to solve problems in the world using science (all examples of intrinsic motivation).

  5. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I don’t know if hiring a tutor at 189 an hour is the most effective way to support a homeschooled kid studying AP Bio. A homeschooled kid could take AP Bio online at CTY, which comes with an accredited transcript, online class meetings, homework, quizzes, tests, and an online instructor who can communicate via email, phone, and interactive virtual classroom, for 1500. That’s a 30 week class (or 12-week intensive), at 6-8 hours (12-15 hours) a week. If my son were homeschooling for high school, that’s what I’d do (before he started on college extension courses).

  6. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I agree with May up there that there may be some type tendencies going on here, haha.

    “Showing your work” is basically illustrating for other people what’s going on in your head to show them how you got your answer. I feel like that would be incredibly onerous work for an INTJ. It’s like, “As long as I got the right answer, who CARES how I got it?!”

    He is probably hung up on that – on how pointless that process seems – but maybe it would help to point out to him that the neurotypical adult world is filled with seemingly pointless processes like this, so he just has to learn to deal with it. Acing the AP chem test is just another step towards the independence I bet he wants.

    • Bos
      Bos says:

      My son was pretty averse to showing his work too, resulting in many zeroes for homework. Which he also didn’t care much about.

      The only explanation I had that worked for him was that showing your work is a good idea if you’re a daydreamer, because then when you finish your fugue it’s easier to pick up where you left off without forgetting something and getting the wrong answer unnecessarily, or having to start from the beginning again.

  7. Mr. Butter Passing Robot
    Mr. Butter Passing Robot says:

    As a kid, I often got reprimanded (and even worse had points deducted) for not showing my work on math problems. I hated it, but I hated not having the highest score in the class even more, so I eventually learned to show my work in excruciating detail.

    Twenty years later, I was an actuary building hundred page spreadsheets with literally millions of calculations. I also had to review other people’s spreadsheets. They had to review mine.

    And you know what, when you have millions of calculations, you “will” make mistakes.

    And you know what else, if you haven’t shown your work (which in Excel means often means creating an incredibly long and complicated formula that gets the job done in a single cell instead of spread across 6 or 7), figuring out where you made a mistake, or diagnosing someone else’s error is incredibly painful. It’s also incredibly time consuming.

    I agree that the way that most teachers present the idea of “showing your work” seems pointless and maybe even a little bit insulting to someone who really gets the concepts on an intuitive level, but all the most interesting work these days is done in teams, and even when everyone on the team is super smart, communicating about complex concepts is super hard. Learn to leave an audit trail. Learn to love it. It will pay dividends in technical work.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Mr. Butter Passing Robot, I very much agree with your reasons for the importance of showing your work. It’s not just for yourself, your boss, or someone else who you may have in mind but for anyone who either needs or wants to know how you arrived at your conclusions – now or at some time in the future. It informs other people of your approach, assumptions, and the variables taken into account to arrive at your conclusion(s). As you say, work today is more focused on teams and it is more important than ever to communicate your reasoning and logic as to how conclusions were reached. I like your Excel example. I have limited experience using Excel but can very much appreciate its power. It’s the complete package with formulas, text to label, and graphs to illustrate. It gets my highest mark of all the Office programs for its versatility.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Penelope, your son is taking the AP test as I type this comment. He’s doing his best to get the highest score he’s capable. Nobody can ask for anything more. It’s the advice I got from my Dad whenever I did something whenever I somehow felt I wasn’t doing enough. He would tell me that all you can do is do your best and know that you’ve done your best. Your son will take more tests in the future and he’ll get better at taking them because he’ll have more experience. If there’s a will, there’s a way. It applies here and I’m confident that he will be successful with your help. Please write more homeschooling posts.

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