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Q. My gifted teen is an underachiever. He makes mediocre grades at school and is generally disinterested in meeting his potential. How can I motivate him?
When we spoke, this mom said her son loves skateboarding. He even designed a new skateboard course for the local skate park by researching the dynamics of how different angles would create the opportunity for skaters to perform various stunts. While hanging out at the park, he made conversation with the owners, showed them his designs, and eventually a course similar to his designs was built.
A. Parenting is tricky business. We receive so many messages from society about what will make our children a success. When motivating your gifted child it is critical to determine whether you are seeking to inspire, discipline, or motivate. Attempting to inspire or motivate with the language of discipline can shut down the gifted at any age and may create a life-long underachiever.
Inspiration is the process of planting seeds of possibility and is best shared with no strings attached. One of the best ways to inspire your gifted child is to support what they love, like skateboarding, even if you do not “get” it. Meaningfully connecting with your child on his ground is likely to lead him to be interested in meaningfully connecting with you on your ground. When engaging your child, listen closely for opportunities to help him grow his unique interests by identifying resources, setting goals, or finding like-minded peers. However, leave the follow-through to him unless he asks for help.
Discipline, on the other hand, is better thought of as behavior training. Consider: You may want your child to care for their space and belongings in a certain way, to be punctual, or to approach negative emotions with self-control. This is discipline, which is about being able to follow through when motivation or inspiration is not present. In this case, it sounds like you want your son to be disciplined in his approach to school so that he can achieve good grades.
Finally, motivation is a driving force, a feeling that can be stimulated by internal or external rewards. We can be motivated by experiences, belonging, grades, money, stickers… The key to stoking the fires of self-esteem and life-long success is noticing and supporting the experiences that intrinsically motivate your son. Intrinsic motivation is often the natural state of being for the gifted. Sometimes external rewards can be established to achieve a short term goal, but without intrinsic drive the gifted child’s movement toward the goal may diminish. Keep a long term perspective. Value your child’s unique drive above academic achievement.
When context is removed, it sounds like your son is an intrinsically motivated, high achiever. Celebrate him! Then address discipline for academic success, if necessary.
Carol Brainbridge, Board Member, Indiana Association for Gifted Children, Top 10 Ways to Motivate Gifted Children
Lisa Van Gemert,Gifted Youth Specialist for MENSA Underachievement: the label that keeps on taking
On skateboarding, Dr. Tae, Skateboarding Physics Professor