Reader Question: 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, 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?
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 will not, generally speaking, 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. 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 that adults get 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. You, therefore, 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 goal statement are printed Yes and No and the teacher’s name beside a place for her teacher’s signature. At the end of every school day, Bobby takes the DRC to his teacher, upon which she circles either Yes or No (Make sure you emphasize to her that it’s all or nothing) and signs her name. Bobby brings the card home. On a daily basis, at-home privileges—television, video game, 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. That means that on any given day, Bobby will be working for 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 himself. In other words, the person who experiences the emotional consequences of a problem will be motivated to solve the problem.
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,” you and the teacher must continue to enforce the new system for at least three more months.