Teaching a Child to Work Hard

Jan Faull, MEd, on gifted teens who aren't motivated.
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Q. Our 13-year-old son (seventh grade) is very smart. He doesn't have to work too hard to get A's in school. His homework usually only takes him a few minutes to finish. This is great, except that when faced with challenging projects or assignments, he doesn't want to -- or know how to -- put out the extra effort that is required. We need ideas on how to motivate him and get him to see the importance of working harder. High school and college aren't too far away!

A. It will be difficult to persuade your 13-year-old son that working hard and putting out extra academic effort are important.

Your hope is that at some point -- probably with inspiration from a skilled teacher -- he'll change his ways. He may become motivated to make that extra effort if a subject strikes his interest. This is when he'll dig into the topic, acquire academic discipline, and perform to his intellectual potential. You hope this awakening happens soon, but in reality it may not happen until he's a junior in high school or even in college.

When children are in the midst of puberty, they are often at an intellectual lull. Their brains seem to be on vacation as their bodies, social lives, and emotions evolve from childhood into full-blown adolescence.

For you to pressure him would work against the long-term goal of academic fortitude. Typically teens turn in the opposite direction of parents' wishes and desires just to prove their autonomy. In truth, if you say work harder, he may do even less than he's doing now. You want to avoid this possibility.

You can, however, give your son sound bites of academic reality such as, "When you're in high school and college, some projects take more time, effort, and planning."

You can also say, "I see you've got a science project that's due next Wednesday. I'll be around all weekend if you'd like some ideas or assistance from me."

You can add, "When I was in school, here is how I approached a challenging project...."

There's no need to say much more -- and don't expect your son to say, "Thanks, Mom, I appreciate your willingness to help me." He's a teenager; he's trying to figure out life on his own, separate from you. It's best to come in the backdoor with your influence rather than barging in the front door with demands for improved performance or unsolicited academic advice.

Some parents attempt to motivate their teens with money. Let's say you tell your son, "I'll give you $10 if you receive an A on that project." Then, with this incentive, your son takes the challenge, works hard to make the grade, and succeeds. All seems well and good.

Be aware, though, that next time he may ask that you up the ante to $20. Don't do it. The purpose of the incentive approach is that by working for the $10, he realizes that he enjoys learning and performing at a higher standard, and will no longer need the tangible reward. The job well done, the learning, and good grade become their own reward. If this isn't the case, the dollar incentive program failed.



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