Note: This is Part 1 of a series on Appreciating Underachievers.
Word count for this article: 693.* Reading time: 3 Minutes.
Under-Achieving or Under-Appreciated
If your teen is in the bottom 80% of the class, you may have been told – or thought– that she is “an underachiever” (a polite way of saying lazy or dumb). Underachiever compared to what? Compared to the narrowly-defined measures of school performance or compared to the abilities that will help her to thrive in life?
In my opinion, your child is not under-achieving. I think your child is under-appreciated.
Chances are your child has gifts – and chances are that one or more of them conflicts with school as we do it now. It’s not what your child lacks that is causing the problem. It’s what your child HAS – that we adults have not learned to appreciate (See Appreciating Beauty in The Bottom 80™ video for more on this).
We’ve inherited education recipes—designed for the Henry Ford generation—that are linear, verbal, competitive, and left-brained and we’ve put them in a pressure-cooker for our teens. When a child has gifts that are at odds with this model, the child is labeled a problem. For example, Jonathan is a superb athlete with the gift of grace. He slows things down in his mind’s eye, remains unruffled in edgy situations, and uses humor to defuse tension in a group. This gift will help him thrive in life, but it gets him labeled as a “slow processor” in the classroom.
Turning Down the Heat
The real world increasingly values non-linear, non-verbal, collaborative, right-brain abilities, but most adults have grown up learning that these are not essential to a great education or career – and don’t truly value them in our kids (I’ve written about this before). Parents and teachers tell me they want to value their teens’ gifts and strengths, but too often they feel they must focus on getting the child to fit into the school mold.
Recently, one father asked, “What can I do right now, Christine—while my daughter is still stuck in the pressure cooker?” My answer to this father and others? Turn down the heat. Reduce your focus on school performance (I’ve written about this here and here) and give yourself a perspective that makes you feel good about what she has.
A great way to do this is to appreciate your child’s natural gifts and strengths. Sounds too simple, I know, but it’s actually quite powerful.You may be thinking, “I already do that. What else have you got?”
If you are in the ½ % who are truly gifted at appreciating your child’s gifts without worrying about his “shortcomings,” you can skip the rest (and I’d love to hear from you!). For the other 99.5%, here are some thoughts for you.
No “If Only” or “But”
To truly appreciate, you have to focus, solely, on the terrific aspects of your child. This is the crucial point: you focus on what’s good in your child without the “but” or “if only” that usually follows, as in, “she’s so creative… but I worry about her getting into college…” or “he’s so persistent… if only he would apply that to his school work…”
We’re going to start with you. Even though you may be feeling that you appreciate your child more than anyone else, this is still the best place to start because you will have a ripple effect. In future articles I’ll talk about getting others to appreciate your child as much as you do and also developing your child’s gifts.
For now, take 3 minutes every day for the next 7 days and write “what I appreciate in ______[child’s name]” on the top of a page. Then spend the 3 minutes in pure appreciation – thinking only about your child’s good qualities.
If you’d like to jump-start your thinking with my list of gifts, click the box below:
|Get my Teen Gifts List Here|
If you’d like to assess your child’s character strengths, have him or her take the Brief Strengths Questionnaire on www.authentichappiness.com.
After you write your appreciations on Day 7, take another 3 minutes and answer this question: “What am I noticing in my child that makes me feel great?” I’d love to hear your answers if you are inclined to share them (Christine AT PositiveLeaders.com).
Next in the series: The 5 Best Reasons to Appreciate the Worst Underachievers
News from the Author: Parents and teens often dread the college admissions process, but it doesn’t need to create anxiety and family stress. In fact, it can even be great fun! In response to parent requests, Dr. Michael Thompson (co-auther of “Raising Cain”) and Christine Duvivier will offer “De-stress the College Process” on September 19 in Boston. For more information, email email@example.com or go to www.positiveleaders.com
* Thanks to writing expert Daphne Gray-Grant for showing me the value of telling readers how much time to allow for reading the article.
Images are courtesy of Christine Duvivier.
Christine, it’s the three good things exercise – but for parenting! Nice!
Sometimes I’ve coached a client to do that only about the career or just about their spouse – great to see it about the child. That’s always been my favorite part of the Three Good Things – that at the end, you note, “Oh, what are the patterns I saw?”
When do you think it’s appropriate to encourage your child to do even more in something in which he/she has done some already?
And can you be too positive with your child? There’s this recent research that when people are too positive, they’re not believed, and it backfires – http://adjix.com/xaq6. I hear about this from @toddkashdan’s tweets. Or do you think this doesn’t apply to speaking with kids?
Senia, Great points, thank you! This can be like the 3 good things exercise but in this case the only limitation is 3 minutes so many parents will come up with more than 3 things. Even one is fine, though, and a great start.
RE your question on too positive I’m not sure what the article referred to (the link above was broken). In this case, I am not asking parents to say anything to the child — simply noticing things as a parent. So, in writing about what you appreciate, I don’t think you can be too positive: you’re simply appreciating your child as fully as possible and that is the height of positive emotion.
As for encouraging your child, in general that can be a great thing, but it depends very much on context. Can you say more about what you’re thinking?
Thanks for your thoughts, Senia!
I enjoyed this (and all your previous articles).
I’ll write separately to you, as a I have a question I can’t publish to the world.
Here is Senia’s / Todd’s link:
“to get people to think more positively can actually have the opposite effect: it can simply highlight how unhappy they are”
“when people hear something they don’t believe, they are not only often skeptical but adhere even more strongly to their original position”
Christine and Amanda – I agree with the Time article re the problems with positive thinking. Did you notice the conclusion – the way forward might be mindfulness.
Perhaps we should be teaching kids and parents mindfulness
WJ, I heard that’s what Felicia Huppert believes – we should be teaching mindfulness to parents and children. I think she mentioned this in a talk.
Thanks, Amanda. Christine – I fixed the link above also.
Thanks for the thoughts on positive – sure, I see what you mean – you’re noticing and not necessarily giving the kids a big head!
On encourage – suppose your child is 8 and a good piano player, and you notice that and appreciate it and encourage it. And suppose he starts playing less and less each day, but you know he likes it and is good at it – should you encourage practicing since it is a strength usually? Or should you not encourage/push?
Oh yes, Wayne, definitely saw this; and your comment on your blog about self compassion and being mindful. Mindfulness for everyone! Jenny Fox Eades is also weaving mindfulness into her Celebrating Strengths programme with schools in the UK.
Hi Amanda, Thanks for your feedback! And thanks for the link.
Thanks for bringing the article to my attention (and Amanda, thanks for the good link!).
I can completely understand the results they found — they were treating people like pavlov’s dogs (respond at the bell) and asking them to tell themselves something that the subjects didn’t believe.
As you know, positive psych doesn’t ask people to tell themselves something they don’t believe. Neither do I.
The appreciation exercise is simply a parent paying attention to what he/she believes is good in his/her child. It’s not “telling” the child something the child doesn’t believe.
Thanks for helping us all to consider this research and clarify the distinctions.
Wayne, the research seems pretty straight-forward to me too — forcing people to tell themselves something they don’t believe — and encouraging them to Not accept their own feelings is counter to any healthy approach that I’ve ever seen.
I agree mindfulness is great! For me it’s a “yes and…” not an either/or. I meditate daily and I also like to bring other wonderful things into my awareness — like appreciation.
Thanks for your comments,
Thanks for the plug Senia. There is a massive literature on the downfall of positive affirmations and the importance of letting children know that in some situations, they may not be at the top of their game. To do otherwise is to potentially compromise a realistic assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. See:
Dunning, D., Heath, C. , & Suls, J. (2004). Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 69-106.
Not doing well in school is a gauge of something and shouldn’t be ignored. Tons of possibilities: disinterest, self-presentation, self-handicapping, poor teaching, poor school system, low general intelligence, executive functioning difficulties, etc.
You won’t find any argument from me that in general, the school system is not designed properly to take advantage of student strengths, cultivate knowledge and wisdom, and capture and capitalize on curiosity. However, the skills required to do good in school are skills that are quite useful in many contexts in the adult world. This includes persisting at mundane and boring activities, sustaining attention, developing analytic skills, and navigating the social world and the litany of societal rules and regulations. When you are in the bottom 20-30% in school, something is going on. Moreover, I know this is not politically correct but its the truth: some children are low in general cognitive functioning. This doesn’t mean they have a disorder but there is a bell curve and some people are going to be on the lower end. What are the consequences of pushing this fact under the rug? This was tried before in the self-esteem movement in the 60’s and 70’s that was a complete disaster. It led to far too many children without the coping skills to effectively deal with inevitable stressors and failures.
This being said, I think its a great idea to avoid labeling children by their school performance. This includes being part of the bottom 80%. Talking to children about people-in-context can be profound. In situation X, maybe A happens, in situation Y, maybe B happens. Instead of talking about children in fixed terms, talk about their qualities in malleable terms. And yes, definitely figure out if their strengths can help lift them and start implementing. But I would be remiss if there was a return to the idea of finding positives, pound on positive affirmations, and dismiss the unpleasant information that school productivity is providing. It feeds the agenda that unpleasant thoughts and feelings are “bad” and we should alter, rid, and avoid them and replace them with more “positive” thoughts and feelings.
Distorted self-assessments vs. Authentic, self-in-context assessments
I choose the latter. Mindfulness skills can be a major facilitator…..
Amanda, thanks also for the information on Jenny’s UK schools program. I think mindfulness is terrific.
Dear Todd, I agree with you completely about context and authenticity. I imagine some of your comments are directed at the TIME article because you talk about positive affirmations, etc. I agree that telling people to say something about themselves that they don’t believe is not what positive psych is about. Nor am I.
As for bell curves, a key question is what are we measuring against? If it’s verbal and linear, we get one result. If it’s visual and non-linear, we get another result. Same with competitive/cooperative, right-brained/left-brained.
I wonder why we feel such a need to compare everyone so arbitrarily– especially at young ages? All of us will look bad on some bell curves and good on others. Some of the kids who look worst on the current bell curve of school performance turn out best in life — and of course, vice versa.
Thanks for your comments!
Hi Senia, RE: piano-playing… thanks for clarifying!
As of course you know, piano-playing is a skill — not a strength or gift. So, coming back to my article for a second, I am asking parents to think about strengths/gifts — although it’s fine if they want to think about talents too. And again, this is just the parent noticing– not telling the child something.
This is one of those “it depends” (sorry!) questions. I would want to understand much more about context (why has he stopped playing, what does he want, who’s goal is this — parent’s or child’s, etc. etc.) before I could offer my thoughts.
Thanks again for asking great clarifying questions for all of us!
Just a quick response. You ask why we should compare young students especially when they can be arbitrary. I guess this is where we might disagree and where I see the link to the 60’s self-esteem movement.
How can it help to avoid comparisons? What would you replace it with in the real-world? On the basketball court, people pick teams. Colleges can’t accept everyone due to financial limitations and differences in readiness, so they make choices. Same goes for corporations. When there is a new account at a firm, someone is going to get it and others aren’t. With limited financial resources, not everyone will get the same raise. Then of course there is the social world….everyone is going to get rejected by someone and some people are not going to land the friends and romantic partner they want all the time.
Our brains operate this way. Our social world operates this way. Our culture operates this way. We can’t fault it because there are limited resources.
So for me, the best thing we can teach is good coping skills and mindfulness is one of the better ones. Shielding people doesn’t build strengths and coping skills. This is one of the first things you hear about when people talk about strengths. They grow in the context of challenges.
what would be the replacement?
I have two young kids, too young for school. I soothe them when they are in pain but I acknowledge it and explain it instead of trying to rid it. I hope to do the same when they start navigating the social world and all of the comparisons, rejections, failures, successes, and challenges that are inevitable. And I hope to teach them that there is no single dimension that defines them, they are a fascinating matrix of strengths, personality traits, and in certain contexts, they thrive and others can sap them. From this, they can learn to adapt and confront what the world and their own mind throws their way….
I have done a lot of work with children who have displayed ‘under-achiever’ tendencies. Obviously, my approach to working with these children is going to be biased towards my methodology, namely ‘meridian tapping’. I also prescribe to the concept of a child having its own version of reality, rather than the ‘reality’ dictated to the child by a teacher, caregiver or parent.
I have yet to see anything as effective as ‘tapping’ at discovering the underlying causes or reasons for the under achieving (remembering I am working with the child’s personal perspective or reality) and the subsequent resolution of these cause/issues.
Nothing beats the look of a huge wide faced grin of relief when we are done… 🙂
Christine’s thoughts regarding children and underachievers is the same approach I used as a manager in business with amazing positive results.
Christine – re mindfulness. Can I just clarify that meditation does not equal mindfulness. Meditation is just one pathwway to mindfulness. The other point is the mindfulness makes all these other things that you talk about easier. I guess that’s why I think it’s a foundation skill in life.
You might be also interested in some research on my blog that compares self esteem with self compassion. See http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=512
Todd,thanks for your response. I wholeheartedly agree wtih the idea of soothing but not trying to get rid of pain and “negative” human emotions with your kids. You sound like a wonderful father!
I’m curious: did I write something that gave you the impression I did not want kids to experience all dimensions of human emotion?
As for comparing young students, I agree that each of us is going to be better at some things than others are. And I feel that is something to be celebrated. At your children’s ages, adults generally do a great job of delighting in their varied gifts, strengths, interests, personalities, etc. That changes by the teen years.
In much of our approach to education today (there are of course exceptions), we compare kids on a very narrow basis and find some kids “excellent” and others flawed. This is one of the things I object to. If education was just a small portion of their daily lives, it really wouldn’t matter much, but for teens it is the bulk of their daily lives.
Thanks for expanding the discussion and bringing out great points.
All best wishes to you during these fantastic years of your life with young children.
Dear Matthew, Thanks for letting me know about the meridian tapping. I’ve heard about it before but would love to know more.
Gerry, Fascinating!! I would love to hear more — if you are willing, would you email me?
Wayne, yes, I agree. Thanks for your note! Christine
I think the discussion has moved towards “what one communicates to one’s child”.
The way I read the original article is that it was directed towards the Parent’s Thought Process, not specific communication. By helping us (parents) spend some time focusing on what we appreciate about our child…..it helps balance the time spent on the worries/problems/concerns.
Many of us get hung up upon the “but” part of the sentence.
In turn, by spending time on the appriciation part it’s bound to color how we relate to our children. And yet, I didn’t read Christine as prescribing any way for us to relate to them.
This is about US (parents) and OUR PROCESS.
Thanks Christine, very helpful to me (even tho my child is almost 20).
I believe that focusing on our child’s strengths will lead to positive action as a parent. Even though we think we know and appreciate our children, they will always throw us a curve. The strengths test at authentichappiness.com is a good way to start a conversation with a child (even a 20 yr. old). Bribe your child/young adult/teen to take the test. It can be a great springboard for discussion. And listen… I think listening is the hardest job for a parent to accomplish regularly. After parenting for 23 years, I still struggle with this job.
It could be that a child/parent needs to let their curiosity help them find the way.
I like this statement from Todd Kashdan’s book Curious, “…the cultural obsession with intelligence needs to be reconsidered and curiosity needs to be brought to the forefront.”
Wonderful article Christine. Although my kids have always done well in school, I have never pushed academics. My oldest is currently in law school. Your article has me wondering about my youngest who is about to enter a middle school for the intellectually gifted. As parents, I hope we will keep the school work in check and not try to ‘mold’ our child to the school. I’ll strive help him continue to develop his own unique gifts and strengths… and if needed, take him out of the ‘pressure-cooker’.
Thank you for the article.
Helen, thanks for your astute observations! You went to the heart of the article and I appreciate your feedback. Yes, this is about “our process.”
Thanks for sharing your perspective,
Marje, you sound like such a wise mother — and I love that you acknowledge not having all the answers (as none of us ever do) even after 23 years. Our kids and we continue to change…
Great that you are going to monitor your middle-schooler’s development. I imagine that if he is going into a school that celebrates his gifts, he’ll be just fine.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
I’ve enjoyed the first part of this article! With this I feel that you’re preaching to the choir – but I need more help when it comes to my colleagues.
I teach a Middle School all day pull out Gifted program. At this age it seems that the underachievers or “lazy” ones seem to draw more attention to themselves because I’m hearing from seven different teachers that they are failing; as opposed to one teacher in a self contained elementary classroom.
I am in constant struggle with these teachers wanting my students to be “punished” by pulling them out of the program until they get their grades up. I remind them that our policy prohibits this. They can’t seem to grasp the fact that not all gifted students are A+ students.
I have suggested differentiation – explaining that while it might take a bit of extra time up front, it will make their lives easier in the long run. In their minds, I’m asking them to do MORE WORK ~ which they do not want to do.
I plan on printing your article and sharing it with my colleagues. I look forward to the second half!!
Thanks for allowing me to vent!
I really appreciated reading your comments. My son is about to enter a gifted program in middle school. You have just voiced a concern that I am wondering if I will face next year. I understand that students need to do homework, but must all ‘intellectually gifted’ kids do so much more homework than other kids? Is always having a large amount of homework the price you pay for putting your child in an intellectually challenging environment?
Just because a child is ‘intellectually gifted’ must they spend so much of their time on school work?
I would love it if all gifted teachers would read two books:
1. Curious? by Todd Kashdan
2. Celebrating Strengths: Building Strenths-based Schools by Jennifer M. Fox Eades
Thank you for venting,
Very good point. I served for 5 years on the academically gifted task force in my community. I started with the goal of protecting programs that seemed good for my children. Over that period of time, I observed a lot of things that changed my opinions.
For starters, many of the children in gifted programs are very high on verbal and analytic abilities, but may be not be so advanced in interpersonal and other abilities. When they are separated from other children, they sometimes get inflated notions about their own abilities that make their interpersonal abilities worse. They may actually become less able to see strengths in other people that are different from their own. Also, when they are loaded down with homework — because keeping them challenged means working them hard, no? — they may have even less time to interact with others.
I hope your son has enlightened teachers who don’t just think increasing challenge means giving more work.
Thank you for your comments. You have a very good point about students not being able to understand the strengths of others in other people. There is a good set of workbooks from the UK that teaches kids about recognizing strengths. I’ll attach the link below. I’ve learned that those interpersonal skills aren’t necessarily inherent and need to be taught right along with math and science… and especially in the child that is weak in those areas. One of my older daughters in college dealt with social anxiety, and after many years of struggle, she was able to overcome and understand her reactions to other people/events. I’ll attach a link to an article also about ‘what to do for shy kids’ that helps understand this aspect.
It’s great to hear from someone who understands what my son is entering into. It may be a very positive experience, although I’m trying to be prepared ahead of time.
I enjoyed reading your article. As I read it I thought about my younger brother who is having a tough time with school this year. I can understand why it is important for my parents and I to not dwell on these struggles and to make him feel more appreciated.
I was hoping that you could explain a little more in depth how we can make him feel more appreciated. You had mentioned writing down what you appreciate about your child. Do you share it with the child or will it just rub off on you so you show your appreciation more? And do you have any more suggestions?
Hi Danielle, Yes to both of your questions. Yes, you can simply do it for yourself and it will cause you to see him differently and interact with him differently (better). Yes, you can also share it with him which will help him to also see himself more positively.
My other suggestions: Show him the video presentation that runs on my site: http://www.PositiveLeaders.com/studyresults.html– parents tell me it makes their teens feel better about themselves. You can get lots of information and articles from my blog: http://PositiveLeaders.blogspot.com and my radio program which you can access from anywhere in the world: http://www.talkshoe.com/tc/64956
Your brother is very lucky to have such a caring and actively interested sister!
Best wishes to you and your family,