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High Potential, but Low Achievement

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My 13-year-old son has always been well-behaved, sensitive,cooperative, and generally "wise beyond his years." He was identified in kindergarten as gifted and talented. I've been worrying about him for some time now because, while he seems generally happy, his father and I are concerned with what we term his "lack of passion" for anything in particular. He plays piano well, but does not excel as much as his teacher thinks he could. He makes A's, B's, and an occasional C in school, but his teachers are frustrated because his obvious maturity, intelligence, and contribution to class discussions predict a straight A-performance. Also, he scores very high on aptitude tests.

Both his father and I have followed a similar pattern -- extremely high potential with low achievement. Naturally, we are very worried about history repeating itself! What can we do to impress upon him the importance of striving for excellence? He seems to have developed an attitude of patient tolerance for our concern, but continues to stroll along life's path. Should we be doing something to motivate him?

A: Your son is being himself. We all should be allowed to move "along life's path" at our own pace, encouraged and supported by our parents in the process. Sometimes we "stroll," sometimes we run fast, and sometimes we just sit still, pausing to figure out our life's next natural "rhythm." It appears that you are having problems with your son because he is not measuring up to the achievements and "passion" that you believe he should have.

I am sure that you have communicated your disappointment and disapproval, perhaps always believing that you were attempting to motivate him. What kids take from this kind of ongoing "underachiever commentary" is that they are never enough...not in the eyes of their parents or their teachers. Think about what your son is hearing from you, his piano teacher, and his school teachers: "You could be better than you are." Is this a chorus that should inspire a child and improve his self-worth?

My guess is that you've been expecting great things from your son ever since someone labeled him "gifted and talented" in kindergarten. His aptitude tests continue to show you how great he could be. But he continues to disappoint you and his instructors, not being the A student that you think he should be. It's got to be tough for him to know that he disappoints so many people on a regular basis.

You and your husband have compared your son's lack of achievement (in your terms) with your own past " extremely high potential with low achievement." I think that you see him making the same underachieving mistakes that you did and might be confusing who you were in your childhood with who he is. Your son needs to be viewed independently of you, your regrets, and your unfulfilled potential. Unless you separate yourself from him in these matters, you will not see him for the child he truly is -- a delightful, bright, sensitive boy who is becoming who he was meant to be, on his own terms. I'd recommend reading Giving the Love That Heals by Hendrix and Hunt, to help you deal with the unfinished business of your childhood that is interfering with your appreciating, valuing, and encouraging your son.

I know that you love your son and want him to be happy. Please take the time out to at least consider my comments, as you rethink how you can help him become who he is naturally meant to be. Thanks for listening.

More on: Expert Advice

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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