John Rosemond: Lazy son needs to be taught the Agony Principle

Syndicated ColumnistAugust 26, 2013 

Question: Our 9-year-old son Bobby is intelligent and capable of doing good work in school when he wants to, but he is generally downright lazy. 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, and 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. 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?

Answer:The school identifying your son as "gifted and talented" might be part of the problem. My finding is that a good number of children who've been so identified seem to think 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.

Another 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 has been promoted to gifted and talented, 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. 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 — it has to upset him, not you.

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 class work on time, and all of his work was B or better." Underneath this goal statement are printed Yes and No, with the teacher's name beside a place for a signature.

At the end of every school day, Bobby takes a card to his teacher, and she circles Yes or No and signs her name. Bobby brings the card home.

Every day, at-home privileges — television, video game, outside play, having friends over and regular bedtime) require a Yes. If he loses privileges more than once during the week, he loses them on the weekend as well. That means that every day, Bobby will be working for a short-term and a relatively long-term goal. Obviously, you should arrange all of this with his teacher first.

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.

If my experience 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.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his website at Rosemond.com.

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Question: Our 9-year-old son, Bobby, is intelligent and capable of doing good work in school when he wants to, but he is lazy. 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, and 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. 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?

Answer: The school identifying your son as "gifted and talented" might be part of the problem. My finding is that a good number of children who've been so identified seem to think 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.

Another 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 has been promoted to gifted and talented, 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. 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 — it has to upset him, not you.

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 class work on time, and all of his work was B or better." Underneath this goal statement are printed Yes and No, with the teacher's name beside a place for a signature.

At the end of every school day, Bobby takes a card to his teacher, and she circles Yes or No and signs her name. Bobby brings the card home.

Every day, at-home privileges — television, video game, outside play, having friends over and regular bedtime — require a Yes. If he loses privileges more than once during the week, he loses them on the weekend as well. That means that every day, Bobby will be working for a short-term and a relatively long-term goal. Obviously, you should arrange all of this with his teacher first.

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.

If my experience 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.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his website at Rosemond.com.

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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