The Case of the Overall Underachiever

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have become very concerned about our 11-year old son. He’s a perpetual underachiever in almost everything, from school to the ball field. We know that he can do better – he’s smart as a whip! How can we encourage him to do better?

A: We all want our kids to get good grades, have lots of friends, and do great things in life. But before your child (or you, for that matter) can accomplish those goals—or any others—he has to answer two questions. First, “Is this goal actually worth achieving?” Second, “Am I capable of achieving it?” If the answer to either (or both) questions is “no,” chances of success are pretty slim, whether in school or the real world.

If your son’s poor performance was limited to academics, I’d suggest that you start by getting his hearing and vision checked, or having him tested for a learning disability. But since his underachievement is global, there may be another cause.

Be honest. Could you and your wife are jumping in to help your son before he truly needs it? If so, you’re sending the message that even though you say you think he’s smart, you don’t actually believe it. I know you’re not deliberately sabotaging your son. You’re acting with the best of intentions. But you need to be aware that you may be doing more harm than good.

Now, back to your comment that your son is “smart as a whip.” We live in an age where our kids have grown up being told how talented and smart and beautiful they are. An age when, in the name of building our children’s self esteem, everyone who plays gets a trophy. That’s a huge problem.

In one of my favorite studies, researchers Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck had over 100 5th graders do a variety of tasks. Afterwards, the kids were told—regardless of how well they actually did—”Wow, you did very well on these problems. You got a great score.” In addition, some of the kids were praised for their intelligence: “You must be smart at these problems.” Others were praised for their effort: “You must have worked hard at these problems.”

Later, the kids were given another series of problems, some of which were way too hard for them. The researchers asked the kids to explain why they’d done so poorly. The “smart” group attributed their poor scores on a lack of intelligence. The “hardworking” group, however, put the blame on lack of effort. Do you see where I’m going with this?

A while later, all the kids were given a choice of the kind of problems they wanted to work on. The “smart” kids shied away from challenges and stuck with tasks that were easy for them. They were focused on getting high scores, and more interested in comparing their performance to those of other kids than to doing anything to improve their own. The “hardworking” kids asked for harder problems and were more interested in learning and challenging themselves than in comparing scores.

The bottom line is that by telling your son how smart he is or how much potential he has, you—and his teachers and coaches—are also telling him that his performance is a reflection of his intelligence. As a result, he may have come to see himself as stupid. That, of course, could affect his performance. So instead of looking for ways to encourage him to do better, encourage him to work harder—and praise him when he does.

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