“Pressured Child” of 8 doing his best?

Beth from Summit, New Jersey, asks:

I had the pleasure of attending a recent lecture on "The Pressured Child" which you gave near my home. One of the many wonderful points you made was that "at any given moment, every child is doing their best," given their current mindset, environment, distractions, etc., meaning, I believe, that no one tries to do poorly. I have a very bright 8-year old son who is in third grade; he is not particularly motivated to do his best or put forth full effort in school or in athletics. While I think I understand the point you were making, my son is clearly able to write neatly but often rushes and "chooses" not to. He is able to skate well and be a contributing member of his hockey team, but typically only does so for about half of a game. He is able to do math but often makes careless mistakes and refuses to check his work. What can we do to encourage him to give his all to whatever he is doing, to do his best and reach his potential?

You tell me that your son is bright, and that makes me happy for him. Intelligence gives a boy an edge in life; however, as you clearly know, being bright and being persevering are two entirely different things. Intelligence is a gift of nature; the capacity for sustained work is an ability that has to be developed over time. Not many eight-year-old boys have a "natural" capacity for sustained effort and attention, nor do they care enough about homework or the score in a hockey game.

Indeed, very intelligent boys often think that they have been given a gift-thank you, God-so that they can do their homework real fast and get it over with. Gifted boy athletes often think that they only need to get out on the field or the rink and show their stuff and then they can pay attention to something else. It is through practice and more practice, and seeing the positive results from all that work, that a boy’s capacity to knuckle down and do a thorough job increases.

I have two suggestions. Try sitting next to your son when he is doing his homework every night. Turn off the television, create a study hall atmosphere, get a book, sit down with him and say, "I’m going to sit with you because I know it is hard for most boys to pay attention to homework. I’m here if you have any questions." Just use your presence to let him know that you and he are going to sit together for a prescribed amount of time, say twenty minutes. I guarantee that your presence and attention while he works will slow him down.

If you have time for an experiment one evening, do the following. Photocopy his homework assignment (if it is a one-of-a-kind worksheet) and set the copy to the side. Tell him you are going to give him a speed test. Ask him how long it usually takes him to do one problem. If he doesn’t know, time him with a watch while he does a very easy problem. Then challenge him to finish all the problems in his homework in the shortest time possible (easy problem times X-the number of problems in the homework). Encourage him to do it at top speed. Once he has finished, set the homework aside, without looking at it. However, notice if he struggles with a problem. If he did, ask him to do that one problem slowly and thoroughly; once again, time with your watch. Then, present him with the second clean worksheet. Encourage him to do that worksheet at his "slowest" time (hard problem time x number of problems in the homework). When he has finished, put the two papers side by side and ask him to compare them. Make the task fun. See if you can engage him intellectually in the task. (If he discovers the scientific flaw in the experiment as I have proposed it, get him to propose a better design for the experiment)

What I am suggesting is that you can teach your son to take the time he needs to do a good job. He doesn’t have the ability at eight years old for the simple reason that he is….eight years old. He’s still impulsive and he’s not very motivated to play an entire hockey game. He will be in time, when he’s bigger, stronger, more focused and when he has developed the wisdom to know that thee is a very strong connection between effort and outcome.