27 answers

Son Underachieving and Driving Me Crazy

My son is finishing up 8th grade. Last night he came home from a marching band practice at the high school, an honor he fell in to with another boy whose older brother made it happen. We were tight on a soccer game schedule, but when he walked in the door, he said he had an awards ceremony to go to for keeping a 3.5 average in Spanish. (Very typical to get information like this at the last minute or a minute too late) I went with him and watched a lot of kids get academic honors. I feel horrible, because rather than be proud of the accomplishment in Spanish, I was disappointed that he hadn't done more. And I didn't hide it. He has an IQ of 136 and can ace a class with minimal effort, but chooses not to. He calculates how much he can not do and still get a B. Spanish is "easy" because its all memorization. It spills into everywhere. He doesn't get up in the morning. has to be told over and over to do the few chores we ask of him. Literally refuses to do school work at home. He does it all in the hour of advisory in the morning. This isn't a middle school problem. He has always been like this ever since he'd sit on the floor refusing to tie his own shoes at age 4, when he was quite capable. I know I'm doing terribly at dealing with this. I have taken on the attitude that its his job to be a success and I can't make him care about doing his best. He doesn't care if he gets a good grade, or makes us proud, or earns an allowance. But I can't really let it go and he knows I am disappointed in him. Its not like we're always at odds. Not at all. He's affectionate and lets go of any arguments we have. Sometimes I'm still shaking from a tense encounter and he's moved on and is quite happy. He's kind of a home body even, often choosing our company in the evenings and weekends. Even that I think comes from not wanting to put out the effort of making plans with friends. He waits to be called. My husband is an engineer who admits he was an underachiever, too. And I know I was, but I didn't have nearly the natural ability my son has. I suppose that makes us want him to be better than we were since now we see how we could've done more. Are these things genetic or did we pass it on some other way? I just need advise on how to let go of my expectations. He's so capable and I feel like I've failed him by not being able to inspire him into doing his best.

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Thank you for all the insightful responses to my plea for help dealing with my response to my son's underachievement. I was especially grateful for the view of his side from people who were like him when they were younger, and for how my response could be affecting him. I can never get back the missed moment I had to celebrate his Spanish Award. I ended up making a funny congrats card (in Spanish) and stuck in some cash, knowing it would mean a lot to him, since we long ago ended allowance until he could do the daily responsibilities without being told repeatedly. We got big hugs and the next day he was up on time and made his bed. That lasted a day, but what is clear to me (again) is that, for him, reward is more effective than punishment. And in the end, its up to him. He's doing better than fine in school, and even if he's "able" to do more, if thats enough for him, it has to be enough for me. I love him regardless. But I don't have to reward mediocrity in order to show my love! Thanks again.

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I struggle with the same thing frequently with my son. A tip I came up together with a therapist helps me step back when I need to gain perspective. Here's the tip - when I am so wrapped up in his issues that I can't tell if I'm being reasonable or overreacting, I imagine that he is someone else's son. What would I advise that son's mother to do? This has made it possible for me to view the situation a little more objectively, and to recognize when I'm overreacting and when there is a legitimate problem that needs addressing. I hope this helps!

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I'm sorry to say I don't have advice to make it better... I just wanted to say "I feel you!" My son is EXACTLY the same! I have been frusterated since he was in the 3rd grade- he had a 9th grade reading level, and got a B in reading... WHAT!! He just didn't feel like doing his assignments, and a B is good right? I have talked to a lot of Moms with bright kids that have this problem and they tell me I worry too much- that it will work itself out- but if you come up with something PLEASE SHARE!! :)

I have the same situation but mine is now 17 is failing all his classes has chose not to follow my rules and is not living at home. He was a streight A student till the 7th grade then I have no idea what happened. School Counslers have been NO HELP he refuses to go to cousleing and that will not help unless he is willing. He finally decided in 10th grade to go places and hang out with friends then he chose friends in which he got into trouble with he is drinking.
I believe he is board with school and I can not get the schools to respond because he hardly ever gets above a C they seem to think he is just not that smart. I have tried 3 different schools in the past 4 yrs not always the best thing for a teenager but the last move was his fault not mine.
He doesn't do his chores thinks he knows the best way to do everything and bearly gets out of bed. if he is grounded he will do nothing but sleep.
Good luck with finding the problem if you do let the rest of use with the same type of child know.

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perhaps you can learn from my experience. I was one of those natural acheivers....IQ 156, talented in music, etc. Whenever I came home with a report card full of good grades, my parents would dwell on the one A- in gym class, or the B+ in penmanship. When I did manage all As, the response was, "You are so smart that that is what we expect of you". I would see my friends get rewards and celebrations over far less accomplishments. What I learned was that it was not possible to please my parents.... that all accomplishments would fall short of their expectations. We were estranged for many years.(decades) If your child acheives, show that you are happy with the acheivment, even if you think they can do better. Right now, it is not worth it for your child to try, because even his accomplishments are underrated. Please get over it NOW. Otherwise, you will raise someone who wants to do as little as possible to get by. I expect that your son knows how much work is involved to get a 4.0 rather than a 3.5 and has decided (consciously or unconsciously) that it is NOT WORTH the trouble, since no one appreciates the difference. Please start celebrating accomplishments, now.

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Your son sounds like me (and the rest of my class of 'high achievers' I went to school with)... high IQ, nothing challenging or interesting enough in school to bother with.

Smart people often work out the real-world reaction to artifice like grades very early: what is an A worth in a store? Yeah. Next week, when that A's old news, how much is it worth (how much is it going to 'count' toward next year's grade)? Zilch. Outside the school system, does anyone actually care what grade anyone got? Hardly.

3.5 may not be much of a stretch for you lad -- but it does suggest a natural affinity for languages that he might like to think about. If he can get that good a grade by showing up (my experience throughout school), why bother putting any effort into it? Beyond 'above average' and already knowing he's smart, why put anything into something he's never going to get anything out of? It's a question HE needs to answer to his own satisfaction.

I figured out in grade 2 that teachers are not here to facilitate excellence or nurture curiosity... they're here to present the curriculum -- which often represents 100% of what they know about the subject they're teaching. It is a very rare teacher who thanks a small child for pointing out (through eager questioning) that the teacher doesn't have a clue what the answer is. So rare, in fact, that not once in my entire public school life did I ever meet ONE.

What is a small, eager, curious and bright child to do with their questions? Well... take them out of school, for a start.

'L. is not living up to her potential' was written on virtually every single one of my report cards... and my reaction to that by the time I was 13 was 'why the heck would I?' As in: what exactly would I get out of bothering? Higher meaningless grades? Yipee. More time wasted doing the same stupid problems I learned to do three years before they were in the curriculum? Hoop-jumping practice? Gee, no thanks, I think I'll use my brain otherwise.

THE reason I completed high school at all was because I was still under the hilarious misapprehension that it was necessary for anything. The reality (made plain by a whole generation of homeschoolers) is that even universities as prestigious as Harvard and Oxford *prefer* self-directed learners who haven't learned to value grades over learning, or how to jump through hoops instead of taking on a challenge.

20+ years later, the ONLY use I've ever had for my high school transcript, A's included, is having something to put in a safe deposit box.

Encourage your lad to do more of what he does well, and talk about the value of excellence (as a philosophy)... and decide how YOU feel about the contrived value of grades, so you can either let it go or make it genuinely important to you (as in: go get some of your own). Don't sell yourself short, either.

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Alright... first, I have to say ... he gets B's. So what. Honestly. He is old enough to learn that there are consequences from his own choices. If getting B's are what he chooses to do, then what is the problem. So he isn't an all A student. I would rather have a solid B student, then one who struggles in school and can't even achieve a C.

Second, have you ever thought about the possibility he is rather bored. Many school situations are just that ... boring ... for those students who are more gifted. You say 'he calculates what he can NOT do to get a B'. That tells me everything is much much to easy for him. There is no challenge. There is no real stimulation. He gets all his homework done during the advisory hour. He doesn't NEED to do it at home because it seems everything is so easy for him he just needs that one school hour to finish.

I would stop looking at what your son is NOT doing and start talking to his school counselor and see what can be done to encourage him and stimulate him. Are there tougher classes or perhaps a teacher that demands a bit more of their students. THis isn't going to go away in high school.

My father is a high school counselor and loves it when parents comes in and want to discuss how they can work together to motivate the child.

Being disappointed in him because he isn't reaching his potential, isn't helping. Instead you should be looking to what is the root cause. It isn't because he is lazy. He ISN'T lazy. He does all his work in ONE school hour! He knows exactly what needs to be done to get a B. If he was lazy, he wouldn't take the time to do that and he would just not do ANY work... and end up with C's or D's. He cares enough to get B's. He knows that is important. He just isn't stimulated enough to put in that extra bit to get an A.

As far as chores around the house and such... that is typical teenager stuff. You just have to have that conversation of 'you are part of this family, you help out. We all help out.'

Personally, I do not like to attach allowance to chores. I think chores are something you do because you are part of a family and live in the family house. Allowance is something seperate.

Every kid has SOMETHING that is important to them. They have something that is very important to them, or something they really like to do. Find out what that is. If he doesn't pull his weight with the household responsibilities... take it away. Take away the priviledge. If it is important enough to him, he will make sure it doesn't get taken away again.

Honestly, I think you just need to adjust your perspective. Underachievers are underachievers for a reason, not just because they don't want to do the work. Nothing in what you have written tells me that he is lazy. He is making a conscious choice. You need to dig a little and find out why.

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I don't have a 13 year old. I was a 13 year old... I never brought homework home. I was bored. If they had put me in classes that were interesting I might have gotten along better.

I have not had any problems getting good jobs (and keeping them) in my life. Once I figured out that output equals money I was motivated! I worked at McDonalds for 4 years in high school. I have been home for two years with my daughter (and work from home now) prior to that I was a Mortgage Lender and a Bank Manager.

Honestly? My high school education (or lack of it) had not had a direct inpact on my life. I went to see friends. I saw homework as poor planning on the teachers part. I spent all day there and they wanted my night too??

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I too have a son that is naturally gifted and more of a loner. I have to say middle school years were the worst. Things changed a lot when he hit 10th grade. People told me that it was the age and I came up with a list of reasons why it wasn't - but looking back as he is finishing up 10th grade he has naturally grown and matured and taken on better attitudes. I still struggle with him not getting a job at his age (16) - because he says he doesn't need the money. I want him to have it for experience. There will always be issues where you will be at odds - it is all a part of parenthood and adolecent and teenage years - so I have been told and am slowly realizing. I have found I have to tell myself that I should be happy that he is getting good grades (though I know he could be straight A's with a little effort he is happy with A's and B's) - at least he isn't drinking, doing drugs, or hanging out with kids that I wouldn't approve of. I have to remind myself for every little thing I wish he would change - there is something to counter that I am grateful for. Not to be long winded - but I really do think a lot of it does have to do with his age right now. From everyone I have talked to as I worked through so many of the same issues - the middle school years are the worst. It will get better. We all want the best for our kids - but we need to remember a part of the growing process is they have to learn a lot of it on their own too. We can guide them - but they need to step up and make it happen. I truly do think you will see a change in him once High School starts. For now instead of telling him the things you want him to do different just praise him on the things he is doing that you are proud of. Maybe hearing praise after a while will slowly change his attitude. And don't expect a miracle when they do get older - it gets better but a whole new set of issues - such as they know everything and you know nothing is going to surface. I have learned to take it lightly and not fret the small stuff - we have great kids and that says a lot these days.

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My son is 20 years old. He became exactly as you describe your son at about age 12-13. This is just who he is. I had many years of trying to turn him into what I wanted him to be. That only angered me and the knowledge that I was disappointed in him only led him to what I now believe was a deep depression. With me backing off and him just working at his own pace, he did graduate on time and has a job he actually loves, at this moment in his life. He still lives at home and is pretty much a homebody, but he seems happy. And looking at that smile on that wonderful face is worth everything to me. Will he ever "get it"? I don't know. Maybe he won't even want as much as I think he might want. But if he's happy with his decisions, then that's okay with me. He may not ever want the "big house" or the "fancy car" or to "climb the ladder of success". That's okay with me. After feeling like I could've lost him while he was sad and depressed knowing that I was disappointed in him, his "laziness" and "lack of drive" does not compare to the smiles and hugs and his sense of his own achievement. No, realistically he will never become a doctor or an engineer, etc., but this is the son that God gave me and I love him just the way he is.

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My kids aren't to this age yet, but my husband was the same way. I was the exact opposite. The only difference between the two of us was our family structure. He comes from a very nurturing background (loved and attended to the way a child should be). I, on the other hand, was raised by a single mother of two. I strived to do well in school to steal some of mom's attention. I remember begging her to go to Parent-Teacher Conferences so the teachers could tell her how well I was doing (looking for a pat on the back), but she never had time. My husband's parents went to everything, every football game, every open house, etc. My guess is, your son just has loving, nurturing parents, who are doing everything just right! He'll turn out okay... just look at your husband. ;o)

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I struggle with the same thing frequently with my son. A tip I came up together with a therapist helps me step back when I need to gain perspective. Here's the tip - when I am so wrapped up in his issues that I can't tell if I'm being reasonable or overreacting, I imagine that he is someone else's son. What would I advise that son's mother to do? This has made it possible for me to view the situation a little more objectively, and to recognize when I'm overreacting and when there is a legitimate problem that needs addressing. I hope this helps!

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