Q.: Our 9-year-old son Bobby is intelligent and capable of doing good work in school when he wants to, but he is generally 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. He finds every possible way of dawdling.
Believe it or not, despite his lazy ways, Bobby is 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 no matter how much effort they put into their schoolwork. So they do just enough to get by and no more.
The further problem is that schools often 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, do poorly on tests, and so on. Once a child’s been promoted to G&T status, demotion is 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 that adults get upset.
As things stand, your son has no reason to change his ways. 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. You need to take the monkey off your back and put it on his. If the monkey causes him enough discomfort, he will figure out a way to tame it.
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 goal statement are printed “Yes” and “No” and the teacher’s name beside a place for her signature. At the end of every school day, Bobby takes a card to his teacher, upon which she circles either “Yes” or “No” (Make sure you emphasize that it’s all or nothing) and signs her name.
Bobby brings the card home. On a daily basis, at-home privileges — television, video games, outside play, having friends over, and regular bedtime — require a Yes. If he loses privileges more than once through the week, they are lost on the weekend as well. Obviously, you should arrange all of this with his teacher in advance.
Adults should not agonize over anything a child does or fails to do if the child is capable of agonizing over it himself. In other words, the person who experiences the emotional consequences of a problem will be motivated to solve the problem.
Bobby should tame his monkey in a few weeks. However, for the improvement to “stick,” you and the teacher must continue to enforce the new system for at least three more months.
Write to family psychologist John Rosemond at www.rosemond.com.