The deception of the capable student


As the academic year is beginning anew, many of you are assuming that the solid or even superior performance from last year continues. Over the early elementary years, this is often a reasonable assumption to have when your child is gifted or talented. Many students perform well during their elementary years, and yet there can be a false sense of comfort that the past success will continue. In my practice, I see these families frequently during the middle school years and often think of that age-old wisdom of “an ounce of prevention … a pound of cure.” In this article, I will offer that “ounce of prevention” for this relatively common pattern, as it is easily corrected with a bit of insight and a slight change to the game plan.

The primary deception: ‘My child is capable and doing well so I don’t need to do anything’
When a child has naturally good academic potential, they often breeze through their elementary years. They complete homework in minutes, often finishing assignments quickly in school or on the ride home. When quizzed, they clearly grasp the content. Teachers comment about how well they are doing, and all the data suggests that there is nothing to be done.
However, here’s where the problem often emerges: In your child’s mind, they see themselves as bright and more importantly, the corollary belief emerges that is something like, “I don’t have to work hard to get this stuff.” And in reality, they do not have to work hard in those early years. For you as parents, you see this and can’t argue with it.
As time goes on, of course, the demands in school increase. Yet, internal expectations have been built on years of history where your son or daughter completes work in minutes, not in an hour or two. Thus, too many of these very capable children become very, very mediocre students as the demands in school increase. They refuse to study for test and complete homework in a flurry. Their effort is poor, and the results show it. Their minds concluded years ago that “real effort is not part of being bright and capable.”

Effort is the key: Require and value effort more than the results
When children learn to avoid effort, they start down the path of cheating themselves out of a good life. Regardless of where children fall on the spectrum of talent and giftedness, the measure of their success will not be in their native ability for which they did nothing. It will be in the effort they bring to bear upon that talent to nurture and develop it. Whether that talent is academic, creative, athletic or otherwise, effort will be the key to their success.
Not coincidental is that fact that happiness seems to flow from the full surrender of our talents AND effort to the work in front of us. Just a partial effort doesn’t seem to do it. When children try to get through their homework quickly, they are seeking a way out of it—an avoidance of giving it their best. They are not devoted to learning and growth. This avoidance of tangible effort is the key issue for your focus. As you do so, you will want to show less interest in the results of effort, and more interest in the moments of effort where your child is notably “doing their best.”

Develop a system to require more effort
If your child is particularly capable, make sure you require more. This does not translate to hours of work for an elementary student. The goal is not to torture your child!
Instead, we want to make sure that they are challenged to put in effort, and that they learn that mom and dad value effort over talent and natural skills. Don’t praise their intellect or their A’s as much as you praise their hard work. Take the time to catch them during moments of effort, whether studying, drawing, building Legos, practicing piano, or hitting a baseball.
Regardless, notice your child’s effort and then show that you value it, with a smile, a gesture, or perhaps a positive affirmation. Talk about giving your best to life, when the chance arises. Demonstrate your admiration for the work ethic that is behind the valedictorian, the newest pop star they admire or the winning athlete. Over and over again, there will be chances to focus in on the importance of giving your best to what is in front of you. At home, your job is simply to make sure that you require more effort, if their current academics come too easily. Again, not hours of effort, just enough for them to develop an expectation that it is their effort that nurtures the seeds of success and happiness.
For more on parenting systems that support this approach, you can always find additional articles on my website, Dr. Randy Cale offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. For more information visit


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