Q: Our nine-year-old son, Bobby, is very intelligent and capable of doing good work in school when he wants to, but he’s downright lazy. He makes mediocre grades, and we have to monitor his homework to make sure he does it. Thirty minutes of homework takes him two hours, during which time he finds every possible way to dawdle. Yet in spite of his lazy ways, he’s in the gifted program. He’s about to enter fourth grade, and we’d like to nip his lack of motivation in the bud. What can we do?
A: First, the fact that the school has identified your son as “gifted and talented” may be part of the problem. I’ve observed that a good number of these children seem to think that mere participation in gifted programs entitles them to good grades no matter how much—or how little—effort they put into their schoolwork. So they do just enough to get by and no more.
Unfortunately, most schools will not lower the boom on these kids. Demotion is virtually out of the question. Teachers continue giving them decent grades even though they don’t complete assignments, turn in work, do poorly on tests, and so on. These kids are smart all right— smart enough to figure out that the only consequence of their lack of effort is that adults get upset.
At this point, your son has no reason to change his ways. You’re the one bearing the emotional burden. At this point, it’s your problem, not his, yet he’s the only person who can solve it. And for that to happen, it has to upset him, not you. You need to take the monkey off your back and put it on his. When the monkey causes him enough discomfort, he’ll figure out a way to tame it.
I recommend that you and the teacher agree on the following strategy. On day one, send Bobby to school with a folder full of half-sheets of paper on which you’ve printed, “Bobby turned in all of his homework today, finished all of his classwork on time, and all of his work was B or better.” Underneath this statement are printed the words Yes and No, the teacher’s name, and beside it a place for her signature. At the end of every school day, Bobby has to take the card to his teacher, on which she circles either Yes or No and signs her name. Bobby then brings the card home.
Each evening privileges such as television, video games, outside play, having friends over, and regular bedtime require a Yes for that day, and if he loses privileges more than once during the week, he loses them the next weekend as well. Thus, on any given day, Bobby will be working for both a short-term and a relatively long-term goal.
This is an example of what I call the Agony Principle: adults should not agonize over anything a child does or fails to do if the child is perfectly capable of agonizing over it himself. Only the person who experiences the consequences of a problem will be motivated to solve it. And by the way, failure to bring the card home is the same thing as a No.
If my experience holds true, Bobby will tame his monkey in a few weeks. At that point, however, for the improvement to stick, you and the teacher must continue to enforce the new system for at least three more months.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.