What to do with an underachieving child

Getting a child to live up to his or her full potential is one of the most challenging things about being a parent. On one hand, we do not want our children to feel that we are putting undue pressure on them to do things they may not necessarily want to do. On the other, practically every child needs at least a parental nudge every now and then, and this often means being the bad guy in your child’s eyes. It is yet another area of parenting where the parents really do know what is best and should use their authority to bring about positive growth for the child.
If you have a child who seems to be a chronic underachiever, you do not have to accept the status quo. All children can be taught to try harder and reach their full potential. If you are stumped as to what to do, here are some tips.
1. Shared choices: One of the major trends in modern parenting is the tendency to give kids unprecedented control over the activities and interests they pursue. Where once parents tended to impose things on their children, we now let our kids decide what they want to do and give them our blessing. There are great things about this approach—it gives kids a sense of self-empowerment, for one—but it also leaves too much wiggle room for laziness and lack of persistence. You cannot force your kids to love activities they are just not into, but you can at least make them try.
2. Emphasize effort: Another mistake modern parents often make is allowing their children to give up on new things before they have a chance to find out if they like it or have a talent for it. Your child might have the potential to be a world-class pianist, for instance, but you will never know this if she gets frustrated and gives up after the first or second lesson. Again, you do not have to force her to do things she does not want to do, but at least make sure the things she does try get a fair shot.
3. Enforce requirements: To make sure your child performs well in school, one of the most obvious steps is to use your parental authority to impose a certain amount of homework time every day. Similarly, you can make sure that a certain amount of time per day or week is spent on certain productive activities such as learning an instrument or practicing a sport. Or, even if you do not make specific time requirements, you can simply make sure your child always has two or three extracurricular activities or pursuits.
4. Know when to quit: Your child has a finite amount of energy, and time spent on an activity that he is just not cut out for is time that could be spent on something worthwhile. So while it is good to enforce persistence and due effort, also try to learn to recognize when an activity or pursuit just is not going anywhere and is not worth the struggle.
5. Be an achiever: Of course, it is important to remember that children learn much about the world by observing their parents, and it is obvious that parents who do not try hard at anything send negative messages about the benefits of putting effort into things. So if you want your child to achieve his or her full potential, make every effort to also do so yourself.

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