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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Motivating an Underachieving Child

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins The Relationship Doctor
  • 2007 7 May
Motivating an Underachieving Child

Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David will address two questions from Crosswalk readers in each weekly column. Submit your question to him at

Dear Dr. David,

My son is in the 7th grade and he has struggled in school since the first grade, basically. We even held him back in the 2nd grade. He has been tested for everything you can possibly be tested for and he has passed everything. At his school they have even put him on a program where his work is modified. The school, his teachers, the principal and counselors have been wonderful to work with him and myself. He has even been taking medication to pay attention in class-- (for ADD, not ADHD.) He isn't hyperactive, he just has an attention problem. But, still it doesn't make a difference in his grades. I've grounded, spanked and done everything I know to do as a parent and I am at a total loss. He is, in my opinion, immature for his age. So, I feel like he just doesn’t care. I even took him to Sylvan Learning Center, but it was too expensive for us to do. Otherwise, I would've loved to have put him in the program. But, we just couldn’t afford it.

What can I, as a parent, do when I feel like he doesn't care if he passes or fails? What is there left to do? I feel like I have done all I know to do as a parent. I love him and I have spoken to him several times about how important having an education is, but even though he says he cares, his grades say different. Please help. ~ At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

You join the ranks of many parents who struggle to find a way to motivate their children, academically, behaviorally, emotionally and spiritually. As James Dobson aptly said, parenting isn’t for cowards. As a father of two sons, I personally know the rigors of parenting.

Motivating our children academically has got to be one of the top frustrations of parenting. Not only do I know first-hand about trying to motivate two sons to perform in school, but—gasp!—I also remember my parents’ attempt to motivate me to perform in school. They had their hands full.

In many ways you sound like you’re doing everything I would encourage from a parent: working closely with school personnel, obtaining testing to rule in or out certain problems, finding additional resources when available, and developing a structure within the home to enhance the possibility of performance.

You indicate you’ve done all of these and yet your son seems immature and unmotivated. This is puzzling for a young boy, though we must consider that he is entering adolescence and motivations often change at this age. Nonetheless, most children enjoy school and the learning process, assuming the attention issues are managed appropriately. I have a couple of things worth consideration.

One, is his medication really managed effectively? You note he still has attention problems. These kinds of medications must be micro-managed—too high or low a dose can make all the difference in the world.

Two, have you developed a program of motivation/ discipline and stuck with it? I’m a believer in the Love and Logic Program, where you refrain from lectures and scolding, and allow a child to make their own choices, with appropriate consequences. For example, if he is behind in schoolwork, it would be reasonable for him to attend Saturday School to make up missing work. Or perhaps he would have extra work in the evenings to catch up. He would miss out on some of the privileges of the rest of the family for irresponsibility at school.

Three, are the discipline patterns used at home aligned with those used at school? Consistency is critical with children. Not only must you follow the same game plan day in and day out with your son, but it is optimal for this same plan to be used with him at school.

Finally, have you considered counseling for him and your family? If there is a missing link in solving this problem, a skilled psychologist/ counselor can help uncover it. Consider attending family therapy to determine what else might be going on with your son. Perhaps there are issues with self-esteem, depression or passive-aggressive behaviors which also need attention.

I am confident that if you follow what you’ve been doing with some of these suggestions, you’ll find a way to motivate your son to greater accomplishments in the academic area.

Dear Readers,

In my most recent advice column, I opened the floor up for feedback to my opinion regarding the appropriate response to the tragic incident at Virginia Tech. Thank you for your responses. Here are a few letters from folks weighing in their opinion.   

Dear Dr. David,

I just wanted to drop a quick note to express my appreciation for your recent article response to a letter from a woman who was considering taking her children out of school for fear of violent attacks like the one at Virginia Tech. Your article asks others to sound off their viewpoint, but I must say that if I were to do so, it would be word for word redundant to yours.  ~ Roger

Dear Dr. David,

I read your answer to the person who wants to home school based on the VT shootings on I think your non-alarmist approach is great. Home schooling is hard work and it is in some sense, a calling. I homeschool 4 boys and have a baby at home, too. Anyone who considers home schooling without counting the cost is asking for struggle upon struggle. God is bigger than the enemy and His protection extends to kids in the public school. Home school offers some protection from what's out there, but it is so much more than a safe haven from the world. It is time-consuming, takes dedication, planning, and hard work. I hope anyone who considers home schooling will do so with the big picture in mind, not just as a reaction to negative circumstances. ~ Stephanie

David Hawkins, Pd.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage   Saying It So He'll Listen, and  When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. His newest books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.