Q: Our 9-year-old son, Bobby, is very intelligent and capable of doing good work in school when he wants to, but he is generally just downright lazy. As a result, he makes mediocre grades, and we have to monitor his homework to make sure he does it. Even then, 30 minutes of homework takes him a couple of hours to complete, during which time he finds every possible way of dawdling.
Believe it or not, despite his lazy ways, Bobby’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, if possible.
By the way, a psychologist who tested him last year said Bobby’s only problem is laziness. What can we or his teacher do to get him to step up to his school responsibilities?
A: First, the fact that the school has identified your son as “gifted and talented” may be part of the problem. My finding is that a good number of children who’ve been so identified seem to feel that their mere participation in G&T programs entitles them to good grades, regardless of the amount of effort they put into their schoolwork. So, they do just enough to get by.
The further problem is that generally speaking, schools will not lower the boom on these kids. Teachers continue giving them decent report card grades even though they don’t complete assignments or turn in work, perform poorly on tests and so on. And once a child’s been promoted to G&T status, demotion is virtually out of the question. These kids are smart, all right; they’re smart enough to figure out that the only consequence of their lack of effort is adults getting upset.
As things stand, your son has no reason to change his ways. The emotional burden of the problem is being borne by you. In effect, this is your problem, not his. For him to solve the problem — and he is the only person who can solve it — it has to belong to him. It has to upset him, not you. Therefore, you need to take the monkey off your back and put it on his. If the monkey causes him enough discomfort and distress, he will figure out a way to tame the monkey.
On day one, send him to school with a folder full of daily report cards — 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, print the words "Yes" and "No" and include a place for Bobby's teacher to sign his or her name. At the end of every school day, instruct Bobby to take the daily report card to his teacher and have him or her circle either "Yes" or "No" — make sure to emphasize to his teacher that it’s all or nothing — and sign it for Bobby to take home.
On a daily basis, at-home privileges — watching television, playing video games, spending time outside, having friends over and going to bed later — require a "Yes." If he loses privileges more than once in a week, withhold them for the weekend as well. That means that on any given day, Bobby will be working toward both a short-term and relatively long-term goal. (Obviously, you should arrange all of this with his teacher in advance.)
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 him- or herself. In other words, the person who experiences the emotional consequences of a problem will be the one motivated to solve it.
If my experience in such matters holds true, Bobby will tame his monkey in a few weeks. At that point, however, for the improvement to stick, continue to enforce the new system for at least three more months.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.