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The teenage boy of my girlfriend is starting his first year of senior high school next September.

As a gifted teenager, he does not do a lot but still gets good grades -- very good grades actually.

Yet, this year, school has given assignments that he completed, but in a very strained manner (lack of time, tears, stress that he gave his mum and me as well).

Because of that, recent weeks have been fraught with stress.

Current year is almost over so everyone is happy.

Part of me can see the same pattern happening next year. But next year will be different, because of change of pace. Yet TB is careless about it (normal for a 15-year-old) and not taking the right steps to plan/care about his workload. TB is like a lot of teens, a procrastinator.

  • What can I do to nudge TB to be more proactive with his school work and amend his procrastinating pattern? (update: after many talks with all of you, the word apathy is closer to the truth)

This is what I've done to ensure TB is doing his homework

  • No yelling from me, except when arriving at breaking point. A tiny bit of biting irony always help to nudge TB
  • Try to give him my perspective as an adult to instill some empathy
  • Give him a deal, e.g. he can help me with the manual work of the house like door fixing, once he's done with his studies
  • Note "Showing your effort/research to solve the problem" IS most applayable on indeed SO(note SO is the site itself, stackoverflow. While the network of pages is the SE network as Stack Exchange). Just FYI. I might be wrong but I would assume parenting is one of the cases where it is hard to show everytime your efforts. – Zaibis Jun 8 '16 at 9:21
  • Hi @Zaibis like in SO, I'm putting in the questions, I'm asking what I've done in good faith. You trust anyone, me included, to not have copy the code somewhere, to have done some modicum of research, that I'm knowledgeable on my subject as much as possible. You cannot verify the extent of my knowledge like in an exam or the extent of what I've tried. Same here in PSE. No one can verify if I'm a good parent, if my kids are properly fed or properly cared about. All you can do, is trust my word, trust what I've put here as a statement of good faith. :) – Andy K Jun 9 '16 at 8:10
  • Just wanted to add the note, If you don't accept this view, thats fine, I won't try to prevent you from doing it that way. – Zaibis Jun 9 '16 at 8:51
  • @Zaibis I accept your point of view. Mine is ok too. Plurality ;) – Andy K Jun 9 '16 at 8:52
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    ted.com/talks/… – Denis de Bernardy Jun 9 '16 at 18:49

18 Answers 18

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Sounds like a common problem for gifted children: they finally reach a level where sitting back and coasting isn't enough, and having to actually put in some effort comes as a serious shock. Often the more gifted the child the worse this is, because greater talents merely put off the evil day and the resulting flameout is all the worse. At least this is happening at school and not when he is away at college.

It might help to explain this to TB. Understanding a situation often makes it easier to cope with. It might also help to understand that "this is what its been like for your classmates all along".

Apart from that, I'd say you are on the right track. Firm about what needs to be done, understanding about the challenge, and rewards and approval for success.

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    Hi @paul-johnson, thanks for the answer. It took me some times (e.g weeks ... it is like taking a crash course in parenting ... -_-' ) to figure that out. I thought my actions were ok but just doing some sanity check with parents who have the same premises. Cheers Paul ! Beers on me if we meet one day (who knows :) ) – Andy K Jun 7 '16 at 17:40
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    This brings back the horror of needing to learn how to study during first year engineering. – Myles Jun 7 '16 at 22:24
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    +1 for pointing out that that's what it's always like for others. It took me years to figure that out, and a lot of frustration over the fact that things got suddenly hard when I had to do independent research. – Karen Jun 9 '16 at 13:53
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    Yep, exactly this. I had exactly the same happen to me in my 2nd year at uni. I'd coasted right the way up to then and nearly failed my course (just scraped through on resits). Final year I had to learn how to study, how to revise, catch up on the material I missed in my second year, and also learn the material from my final year. I did it (and my average grade from 2nd to 3rd year basically doubled) but things would have been a lot smoother and my final result better if I'd needed/learned those skills earlier in education rather than being able to snooze through the whole thing up to then. – Tim B Jun 9 '16 at 14:04
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    Maybe, maybe not. Gifted high schoolers may procrastinate about homework because it is too easy, and thus boring, rather than because it is too hard. – Warren Dew Jun 11 '16 at 2:40
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I would like to supplement Paul's answer a little by abstracting a little bit. The reason gifted children may have this behavior is because the adults near them praise them for how smart they are, not for tackling a difficult task they have trouble doing--even if they failed. Mainly because most of the time in early life they do not fail :)

At the moment, I cannot find the name of the theory behind it, but this article touches the topic well. The best way is to start letting the kid know that things will get more difficult. It is OK to fail--he will have to analyze why he failed and try again. Praise effort, not success.

I'll also add, now that he is older, it will probably have less of an effect. He will need to experience consequences for his actions in order to gain motivation to do what needs to be done. I know after pumping gas for a couple years (I live in Oregon) I had all the motivation I needed to go to school for Software Engineering. Show him some tools (effective habits), and let him make mistakes.

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    I saw a study once where they praised one group of children for being smart, and another group for working hard (concentration and effort). Then when they gave the two groups a second, harder task, the group who'd been praised for their effort (worked harder and) did better than the group who'd been praised for being smart (and who found the second task less pleasurable/rewarding/successful because it was more difficult). – ChrisW Jun 7 '16 at 20:38
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    @ChrisW Yep! I think that was also in a bunch of the scholarly studies. Quite interesting. I have also watched the change in my 5 year old as I started encouraging effort. – Jeff.Clark Jun 7 '16 at 20:40
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    Thanks very much @Jeff.Clark. I need to praise the effort rather than the results. It is a very good idea. – Andy K Jun 8 '16 at 5:40
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    I'd just like to point out, that straight out of HS, I was making twice minimum wage at a blue collar job. This was detrimental (if not fatal) to my desire to seek higher education. – Mazura Jun 8 '16 at 8:52
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    I always found it insulting when people said how "gifted" I was. To me, what they meant was: "Why aren't you working harder? We want you to work to your capacity!" And I would think back: because I don't need to and I am not interested in this material! – user17408 Jun 9 '16 at 20:43
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Gifted kids have problems with approaching work in a disciplined manner because they don't experience a benefit in doing so.

If you give a "normal" kid a "normal" math test, their level of preparation largely determines the outcome. This is a lesson they learn over and over in school.

If you give a "gifted" kid a "normal" math test (and most gifted ones, to be honest), they can be sleep deprived and never have bothered to look at the material, and still ace it by reasoning from first principles and gaming the test with context clues.

This was my world growing up. Normal people keep TELLING the gifted kid how much hard work pays off, but the gifted kid, when he or she works very hard, gets exactly the same shruggy "as expected" top-notch result he or she got from absolutely blowing everything off until the last minute... or worse: in some of our cases, the ONLY way we adapt to work that is far below our intellectual levels is to ratchet up the pressure by purposely procrastinating or over-committing ourselves into a time crunch.

Discipline doesn't work for us the way it works for everyone else...until...

...things get hard...

...at which point, a lot of gifted kids crumple in on themselves because they have absolutely no coping skills for this situation, and their entire identity, their theory of how they have value to the world, is based on their simply being smarter out of the gate than everybody else. When that stops working, especially when the kid doesn't believe that hard work makes a difference (because it never did before), it can be devestating.

There is a time-tested escape from that nasty little running-off-a-cliff experience, though. It's something that a dozen or so of my most well-adjusted high-intelligence friends and I have experienced in our formative years:

Get him interested and actually invested in doing something that is incredibly hard (long-term hard, not master-it-in-a-month hard), and in which his intellect is not a major determiner of success. Examples include martial arts, mountain climbing, powerlifting or olympic weightlifting. Just about any years-to-develop physical discipline will do.  

This takes the ego out (because ego was attached to being smart, remember?) of doing something one is bad at, and learning how to apply disciplined practice to improve and excel. Once one has viscerally experienced what that is like, one is able to believe that discipline works, and apply it when it's useful to do so.

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    I think that is another question, but my short answer is: at some point he'll be bored; take any such opportunity to expose him to other people doing cool stuff, and eventually he'll probably get into something. Boredom is far more viscerally painful for gifted folks than it seems to be for normal-IQ folks, and it's sometimes a bit crazy what we'll do to alleviate it! – HedgeMage Jun 9 '16 at 5:43
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    Following a single recipe, even a really hard recipe, falls under the category of easy things. Some ideas to make it a challenge are learning to copy recipes by taste, learning to cook without a recipe, and learning to plan and cook an exceptionally good full meal.. – Karen Jun 9 '16 at 13:59
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    @TimB's idea isn't a bad one, if the kid finds the right OSS community. If he's as bright as you say, making yet another webapp framework or social toy will be such cake as to be the same problem as school all over again. I was lucky enough to fall in with systems coders when I was 12 and get beaten up on the bowels of UNIX, Linux, and Internet infrastructure code...THAT was awesome. – HedgeMage Jun 9 '16 at 15:35
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    I think this is the best answer. The issue is to find something that he is really interested in, then help him get going on it. I was fascinated by electronics and radio (1970's here) - zero support from my parents. That was a big miss. If a kid is doing something some of the time which motivates him, other more routine activities will be easier to deal with. Bored, unhappy kids are dangerous, and they tend to blame schools and parents. They should. – user17408 Jun 9 '16 at 20:51
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    "long-term hard" - what a great concept! Thank you for this idea! – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Jun 15 '16 at 6:40
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A lot of recent studies have linked procrastination with a poor ability to deal with "negative" emotions and impulsiveness. It's not poor planning or bad time-management; it's avoidance; it's an emotional defense mechanism.

The fact that this teen is gifted probably has nothing to do with it, except that he'll probably be able to "get away with it" and coast or slack his way through life and still do better than most. (I say, with a great deal of personal experience, doing that very thing.)

If you want to address the procrastination issue, you need to actually address the cause of his procrastination (impulsive tendencies and/or poor ability to deal with negative emotions), rather than focusing on symptoms or academic results. To some extent, impulsive tendencies and/or poor ability to deal with negative emotions are ubiquitous among young adults, as a simple function of how their brains are wired and their lack of general life experience, which is worth keeping in mind.

The bad news is that you can't save people from themselves, and unless he actually wants to change, he won't, and you can't force him. You'd know him better than anyone here, so you'll have to use your insights into him as to how you might be able to motivate or incentivize him to address the root cause of his procrastination.

The good news is that there are a lot of resources (many free or cheap) for dealing with this particular problem, so if you can motivate or incentivize him, it won't be difficult to help. Also, an intellectually gifted person will generally be fairly successful even without dealing with this particular problem. I would assert that there's nothing wrong with using your intellectual gifts to make your life easier, rather than using them to make more money or change the world or whatever else other people think they would do with more brainpower. (If that sounds like a defense of underachievement and a bit of resentment towards expectations placed on intellectually gifted people, that's because it is... probably something to keep in mind regarding however you decide to approach this teenager about the issue.)

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    Hi @hopelessn00b, I don't know him that well, what shaped him that way. Second thing is he is a teenager. I barely know what was in my own mind until not so long ago... so for 15 Y-O... You hit the right point, however. What lies behind that apathy...? – Andy K Jun 9 '16 at 15:44
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    @AndyK I imagine that what lies behind it is different for everyone, and I'm not going to psychoanalyze myself here too much, but basically, I've been able to get by and have a comfortable life without really trying hard at anything, so where's my motivation to work hard and apply myself? I could work harder and have more, or I can slack off and have things easier. I chose and continue to choose "easier". I guess, fundamentally, the apathy in my case comes from an absence of reasons to care. Some people have a strong, intrinsic desire to "succeed" and be world-beaters, some don't. I don't. – HopelessN00b Jun 9 '16 at 15:56
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    I can understand using my abilities to make life easier, but I cannot understand having no interests. Doesn't anything make you want to stay up late working on it, or get up in the morning? Why DO you get up in the morning? I don't get this. As a kid I had interests. I still do. I have no comprehension of why people without interests don't just sit down and starve to death. They are not getting anything out of living. (and I did upvote your answer, even though I do not understand your thinking process) – user17408 Jun 9 '16 at 21:07
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    @nocomprende Well, for one thing, sitting around doing nothing and starving to death is boring and unpleasant, so that's probably why more people don't do it. For another thing, I never said I have no interests, so I'm no sure where this is coming from, though I would suggest that there is nothing more inherently worthwhile in engaging in a hobby for recreational purposes than there is in, say, drinking a beer and watching TV. As the purpose is nothing more than recreation and short-term enjoyment, both paths meet the objective. – HopelessN00b Jun 9 '16 at 21:31
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    Yes, this is a good point. People have talked a lot about this being common in gifted kids, myself included, but an important point about it is that gifted kids are the ones who can do this and still push through. Kids who do this and can't coast for a while on giftedness have trouble much earlier on, and it either gets addressed or they get categorized as different kinds of "problem children". – kmc Jun 9 '17 at 17:15
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I would comment but I don't have the rep for it, so this is getting posted as an answer.

I just want to back up what Paul Johnson and Jeff Clark have said already. They're exactly right.

I'm only 20 so I can probably give you a good perspective on what he's going through. I was "gifted" in school and always coasted along, but then senior year of high school was the most stressful year of my life. I was taking AP classes and was just totally unprepared for the amount of work that was necessary. Make him aware that everyone gets to a point in their education where the work has caught up with them and they're not so far ahead anymore, whether that happens in kindergarten or college. And of course praise him for working hard, not being smart.

More practically, talk to him about what classes he is planning to take next year, and whether he thinks he has the right amount of AP or other advanced classes. There is no need for him to push himself too far by taking a bunch of advanced classes if it would cause a lot of stress.

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    Maybe you can make it a comment now? (you need 50 rep, maybe) (Comments in answers get normally deleted.) – Volker Siegel Jun 9 '16 at 10:23
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    Given the length, and also reading the content, I think this is a valid answer. It could be more thorough and less anecdotal, but it's more answer than comment :) – Acire Jun 9 '16 at 11:17
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    I would praise him for working smarter, not harder, and not for just being smart. He has no influence on that. But he can decide what to work on and how. He can use his smarts to do a better job, more easily. That is what he will get paid well for, not for ability, or hard work. – user17408 Jun 9 '16 at 20:45
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An aspect no one seems to have covered:

Let him fail at something, once.

I was in that situation. Coasted easily for a long time, could not deal with real difficult stuff once I got to it. In my case, until I failed seriously, I wouldn't accept that I had to work hard. The more parents would try to help/guide, the least I'd learn the lesson.

Marks below what I could have gotten resulted in not being admitted to my choice university. However, the lesson learned allowed me to understand the value of hard work. This carried much more value in the long run.

  • Hi @jeffrey, I understand your point of view but that's where age and experience struck (my "old" age actually and your parents as well and you as a parent in a not so distant future). Aim is that you prevent the failure before it is too late... Imagine my GF's son is a reckless driver. Would it be better to let him have a crash and maybe die or should I do what is possible for him to learn safe driving ... – Andy K Jun 8 '16 at 14:02
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    Andy - extrapolating from failing at something to a car crash is not constructive. Jeffrey's point is perfectly valid, and in fact others have answered with similar points. – Rory Alsop Jun 9 '16 at 15:19
  • Failing to get in to a good university is too large of a club and too late to hit him with. People don't learn from being destroyed, they learn from unpleasant (small) experiences. Letting him screw up his life is not parenting. You only do this if all sincere attempts have failed. I really don't agree with the "hard work" metaphor either. If you enjoy it, it is not hard. People do well at things they want to do. Employment should be interesting, not hard work. – user17408 Jun 9 '16 at 20:55
  • I feel the key is to establish situations in which the difference in outcome between working hard and coasting is inescapable. The car crashes I've been in have taught me a lot, but successes can achieve this, too. It depends on whether the outcome is important, and whether (lack of) preparation and hard work is key to the outcome. – reinierpost Jun 12 '16 at 14:02
  • Yes, it's important to remember that gifted kids get much farther in life without having failed much at all. So they don't know what it feels like, and they're often praised for that lack of failure. From personal experience, it's a huge amount of pressure that nobody intends to put on the kid but it's there anyway. They also don't realize that other kids fail on the way to each success--they don't get their homework right the first time, so they know they have to go over it multiple times. – kmc Jun 9 '17 at 17:19
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Hear it from others

Obviously, teenagers are typically deaf to wisdom from their parental figures.

I suggest setting up situations for this young man to speak with gifted adults working in challenging fields that may interest him. Invite such individuals to dinner, and/or arrange for him (not you!) to set up an “informational interview” with such persons at their work site. Tip them off about his work habits, and let them explain their own experience in learning how coasting won’t work in college or in real work.

College Prep

“College preparatory” schools are high schools designed to prepare students for the rigors of university. Ideally, in the later grades, they run courses as is done in college where the student is treated as an adult, syllabus on first day listing expectations, no reminders about due-dates, no hand-holding or coddling, pop quizzes, all readings expected to be done and closely-studied well before class, and so on. Experiencing this myself in high school was a wake-up call. If you can find such a school for him, great. If not, visit his current school’s staff to see if any teachers may be taking this approach.

If he truly is gifted, he should be enrolling in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses. Being surrounded by other gifted and motivated students will expose him to better attitudes and better habits.

Some community colleges admit high school students for some classes. Taking a real college course during summer might be another way for him to see what life beyond high school is like, and what new work habits he needs to develop.

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    Hi @basil-bourque, thanks for all your precious advices. IB placements are not available in where we are (french provincial mid-size town) and I'm not even dreaming about advanced placements (for that, it would have needed improvement from french school system ...). For interesting people, they all in Paris ... Aha! Thinking about it, there is world class robotic research facility not far from where we live ... I can send them an email and see if they would be ok for us to visit them... – Andy K Jun 8 '16 at 9:41
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    Although my parents provided an exceptional example for a work ethic, it was not until I learned it from my peers that I had one. +1 – Mazura Nov 7 '16 at 22:36
  • @AndyK, that's a wonderful idea! I'm sure they would love that. They may have an outreach program, or at the very least, they have some people who get a kick out of that stuff and will jump at the chance to show him around. Make sure you let him enjoy the visit and don't push him to show off; just encourage him before you go to talk and ask questions as much as he feels like. (I'm saying this both as a gifted kid/inveterate procrastinator and as a research scientist!) – kmc Jun 9 '17 at 17:31
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As a former 'gifted teen', I figured I'd weigh in. In my (personal, biased) experience, the procrastination is the real problem here rather than an increase in the difficulty of tasks.

So how do you break a procrastinator out of their habits?

  • Encourage him to keep a planner/calendar for his deadlines and consult it daily.

  • Try to get him to estimate the amount of time each project will take in as much detail as possible. Write this number down somewhere. Compare the number of hours he estimated to the number of hours it took when he's finished with the tasks.

As a side note, I would advise you to be very delicate about talking to him about changing his habits. I imagine he's quite proud of his abilities, and saying anything that might come off as a suggestion that he is struggling might not go over well.

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    I agree with the idea of comparing estimates to actual, but try to interest him in it. As a programmer (and probably other professional fields) this is vital everyday stuff. I wouldn't worry about hurting his feelings though. Just be straight. – user17408 Jun 9 '16 at 20:58
  • Hi @leslie-p, I'd better call a cat , a cat rather than sugarcoating him. It will not do him good in the long run as he will encounter people who will be blatantly agressive and to be honest, I'm realist at heart so there will be no hiding from reality from me. My role is to protect and yet to prepare. – Andy K Jun 10 '16 at 8:26
  • I'm just worried because I very strongly denied my own problems when I was a teen, to the extent that I was very poor at accepting criticism. I'm no parent, though, so I bow to your judgment. – Leslie P. Jun 10 '16 at 19:38
  • These tips are helpful, but they won't work by themselves: they address symptoms, not the root cause. – reinierpost Jun 12 '16 at 13:51
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    These are good suggestions. They won't fix it, and he'll probably resist a bit, and they'll take a long (LONG) time to really become habit, most likely. If you work with him on this stuff, which is good to do, make sure it's not something else he can fail at. So, for instance, every week, sit down together and go over his planner and project outlines. Look at what worked and didn't. Encourage him to see things he'd like to change, and then have him think about how he'll do it in the coming week. Then have him set up his system for the next week. Do that until he says he doesn't need you. – kmc Jun 9 '17 at 17:29
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Maybe he's bored?

No educational system is a one-size-fits-all. In fact, I don't think it truly fits anybody perfectly. It is a shame a gifted child has to waste their time perceiving school as the solitary path to a normal, happy, and productive life.

In my experience, I always did best in school and elsewhere in life's commitments when I paired it with a productive extracurricular activity, like investing in the stock market or writing iPhone apps.

Look for other things for him to do. I prefer personal projects, but other activities like sports, martial arts, or even a part-time job can help get him into the routine of pushing himself when he needs to. Discipline in other areas will follow naturally.

  • Hi @rm-rf-slash I wanted to answer but first ... tell me ... no one gave you a sysadmin position yet ... right ...? Joke aside ;)) , issue is TB is not interested in much. I've put in a fab lab, went with him to salvation army for volunteering, tried to teach him coding and he did not come back to me with anything that he is interested in. Only he is interested is tennis but more in a dilettante manner ... Yes, he is bored but what to do to push him out of this bored zone ... – Andy K Jun 9 '16 at 12:56
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    Stack Overflow wouldn't let me use a / in my username ;). Anyway, not sure how much it helps, but to me environment mattered as much as activity. I went to a summer camp that did everything from computer animations to theater to jewelry making, and watching someone code a game felt like magic to me. Likewise, I got into the stock market because I was a senior in HS, I'd already gotten into college, my girlfriend had dumped me, and I found a stock market simulator app and got hooked since I didn't have much else to do, so the pieces all kind of fell into place. – rm -rf slash Jun 9 '16 at 13:07
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    If you haven't tried it, though, I seriously recommend martial arts. It forces you to be disciplined and feels amazing to discover what you body is capable of when you push yourself. That has helped me discover many new horizons I would have otherwise not considered possible or plausible. – rm -rf slash Jun 9 '16 at 13:12
  • @rm-rf-slash he is not a fighter. Definitely not. We can forget martial arts. I wanted to show him Wing Chun but he has trouble to form a real fist. I wish for a lighter wakeup call but if he is not waking up soon, the next wakeup call can be tough, really tough ... For the summer camp, forget about it. Its France and to be honest, the country is really backwater when it is concerning kid's education... – Andy K Jun 9 '16 at 13:16
  • Can you help him get a part time job? He may not be interested in working, but I bet he will be interested in having money. – Warren Dew Jun 11 '16 at 2:48
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Tl/Dr: The solution is best found in areas far away from the homework, like sports and martial arts. In those parts of life, your girlfriend's son may be able to find the opportunity to build the skills you want him to apply towards homework. Please forgive the length of the prose. Writing clearly is a skill I'm trying to develop, and I don't want to rush the content and lose the message.

The problem you describe is called a Hard Problem™. It's especially hard for "gifted" individuals. I, like many others who have answered this question, was considered a "gifted student," and I've spent many years fighting to solve this problem for myself. So, I guess in that sense, I should say "I hope it's a Hard Problem™, because I'm having to spend an awful lot of effort at it!"

I do believe the only valid answer is to help your girlfriend's son find his own purpose in the world. That's not to say that such a statement is easy to do, but hear me out. Hopefully I can explain myself well enough that a lightbulb will go off in your own head, so you can solve the problem your own way.

School has a lot of measurements in it; indeed much of modern life is measured. We get grades on homework, we get grades on exams, we do placement exams to get into college. We are told what time to arrive at work, how much our time is worth to our employer in dollars per hour. We measure a lot, and that can be a good thing. Measurement is a fundamental step in the refinement process we teach in Western civilization. You measure what you did, compare that to what you expected to do, and then adjust your behavior accordingly. It's called a "feedback loop," and it is essential for the way we control things everywhere.

Of course, not all measurements are meaningful; not all measurements add value. Consider the case which I'm certain we've all faced: We have scored a 98, 88, 92, and a 93 on previous exams, and we are about to take one last exam. We know that the grading system is only 5 letters and the best we can get, an "A," is given for any score 90 or higher. Thus, we caluclate "what is the lowest score I can get on this exam, and still get an A for the course." Anyone "gifted" can quickly determine they only need a 79 on the final test. Sure, they can get a higher score, but no outside entity is going to actually recognize the difference between a 79 and any higher score. And thus, if they have no internal reason to go any further, they slack off. Why waste precious energy trying for a 95 on the test?

I believe every student does this at least some time in their life, but for gifted students it is more of a problem. If you're doing so well that you can't meaningfully measure the difference between your actual results and your expected results, how can you improve? My parents found the obvious approach: aggregation. This is a well trod approach in science, where you take multiple samples and average them to get more fidelity in your response. They said "You are only allowed 2 B's on your report card."

And thus, as a brilliant little gifted student, I did the only thing I could do: I "allocated" those B's to the courses I expected to do worst in, and reset the game. once again, I could calculate the least effort required to achieve the goal. Strange how good us "gifted" people are at not doing too much work!

I empathize with my parents, as I do you. This creates a pattern in the "gifted" student that is terribly hard to fix. You see, the other solution that is typically used is to crank up the difficulty. This can't be done across the board. I was horrid at Art. Still am, though I do try to teach myself that I can do art every chance I get (no, you cannot see the results. Nobody can see the results of that venture... ever.) It has to be done selectively. And herein lies the problem. It is very hard for others to really understand what things are easy for a gifted student and what things hard hard. The line drawn between easy and hard is often not drawn in the same place for a "gifted" person as it is for others. Indeed, one of my personal theories on what makes someone "gifted" is that what they find easy is so different from normal people's "easy" that they seem brilliant.

Me, I was brilliant in Math. I regularly went well beyond my grade level in mathematics. Nothing was hard. I cackled maniacally when I learned Algebra and could solve all sorts of problems that had bugged me before. I smiled sweetly at Calculus's subtle integrals and derivatives. Linear Algebra was my B--.... no, I wont finish that sentence in polite company. Let's just say that I'm a programmer now, and linear algebra is the ground upon which I trod to solve problems. When my parents needed to push me, harder, to try to get more measurable data, they'd push me in math, because they knew I could take it.

Then came Differential Equations. Its just another math right? I should excel right? Think again. Something about how it was taught was utterly alien to me. Nothing makes sense about it. I hated it, and I became the poster child for exactly what you fear for your girlfriend's son. Rather than buckling down and studying hard, I reacted defensively. People seemed to think I should be having no trouble at all with this, so I was pushed to "do better" at Differential Equations.

I mentioned earlier that I think what makes "gifted" people gifted is that the line between easy and hard is different for them. Thus, things that are hard for most people are easy for them. Well, I do believe the opposite is true as well. Some things that are easy for other people can be terribly hard for a "gifted" person. People don't understand why it could ever be so difficult for us, because we're "so smart" and it's "so easy." So we learn from a very early age to compensate. I can't draw a face to save my life (My attempts at drawing faces are among the "artworks" I've done that will never see the light of day). But I can tell you, geometrically, why we have vanishing points in our paintings. Do you understand the subtle concepts of white balancing in photography that lead the dress to generate such confusion? Did you know that the subtle overlay of opposing colors like blue and yellow with comparable luminosity that gave movement to the impressionist paintings like van Gogh's The Starry Night? Oh you did know that? Excellent! Did you also know that the reason that effect works is that the brain processes brightness and contrast several stages before considering color (an evolutionary trait for survival in the Savannah), and it is the cognitive dissonance between two pigments with the same brightness and different color that yields that feeling of movement?

No? You didn't know that? Look, I know not only what you do, but why you do it. Clearly you have nothing to teach me. In fact I have something to teach you! Now you learn Art your way, and I'll learn it mine.

Easy, right? Of course it's easy. All I did was use what I find easy to bludgeon what you find hard into the ground and make myself feel superior. This argument should sound familiar, if you are close to a "gifted" student. I'm certain its quite frustrating. My apologies.

So, going back to the one Math course I ever had trouble with, the one that makes me a posterchild for your fears for your girlfriend's son, I hated Differential Equations. And so, I convinced myself, and everyone around me, that Differential Equations are useless. Nobody would ever use them. You know Bessel functions? They show up in differential equations on circular boundaries. Friedrich Bessel got his name on them for not solving them! C'mon, what kind of serious mathematical field is it where you can get your name on a function you didn't even solve! And so, I didn't really "learn" differential equations. I got the B I needed to continue on, and forgot everything I needed to learn... until the next semester. I was an Electrical Engineering student at the time. Did you know that every single {bleeping} thing you have to learn as an Electrical Engineering student in the last two years derives from Differential Equations? Well guess what I know now. Let's just say I graduated successfully. Technically, I even still made honors. I did good, right? Now I can go on to be a programmer, and never use those differential equations again!

Did you know many programmers spend a lot of time programming up numeric solutions to differential equations? Gosh I wish I knew that back then.

So back to your son. What can we do? If nobody around us can understand what we find difficult and what we find easy, we are obliged to learn to do it ourselves, alone. We develop methods of quickly measuring whether a task is easy, permitting procrastination, or hard, which means it's time to dodge the task because "nobody can do it." Those measurements start to take a foreground in our life. If I'm a procrastinator, doing things ahead of time is hard. Simply being smart enough to get away with doing it late is easy. I can measure that very easily by monitoring how I go about the tasks and confirming my own bias: I work better at the 11th hour.

Okay, so that was a lot of text. All of it focused on showing how important it is to be able to make meaningful measurements, and showing what goes wrong when you can't. It also focused on how gifted people may find different things easy or hard along lines you may not be able to predict. Thus, while it may seem easy for you to measure the value of not procrastinating, it may be exceedingly hard for him. Sure, you can teach him not to procrastinate, but the real lesson to be had is how to teach these things to himself. And for that, we need to take a detour, away from measurable things into the unmeasurable world.

The vast majority of our sensory input goes unmeasured, consciously. If you had to actually measure the sincerity of every smile you get as you walk down the street, your mind would go mad. Much of what life must be is fluid. You may be able to develop an algorithm to determine the sincerity of a smile, but it would require far too much computational power to use as you walk down the street.

Consider how we walk. Using the same "I know what you do better than you know yourself" style argument from above, did you know that a lot of your walking gait occurs before signals reach your brain? If you are walking, and bump your right hand on a table, your left leg will have already adjusted its gait before the signals have even reached the brain stem. If you had to measure how hard you hit the table, and react to it consciously, in a feedback loop, you'd fall. The feedback loop actually happens at a much lower level, below that which we can consciously measure.

There are activities we do which exercise this ability to operate without fully understanding what we are measuring. Sports require you to be moving with such ferocity that there is no time to measure. They may be a good place for your girlfriend's son to look for "the next thing." My personal favorite place to look is Martial Arts, where you must move with such control and precision that you literally cannot measure everything that matters. You must feel all of those little details that can't be measured on their own, and integrate them into a way to view the world that lets you grow.

Of course, you can do this yourself. Sports and Martial Arts are not magical things which turn procrastinators into upstanding individuals. They're merely places where you will find teachers who have already learned the subtle art of teaching these unmeasurable things. You can do it too, just with conversation alone. All you need to do is ensure that he has some influence over where the conversation is going, and you have some influence over where the conversation is going. If he ever seeks to dominate it, taking away your influence, you find some subtle point in the middle of his argument where you have influence, and make it important. If you ever find that you are dominating, look for a way to help him find things to push back with.

Sounds easy right? Sure.. I've been working on it for years, and expect to still be working on it when I die. There's a reason I like to defer to the Martial Arts teachers! They have entire schools of thought dedicated to how to teach this way of thinking about the unmeasruable unknowns. However, if you want to do it yourself, a general geometric argument I have found effective is to always nudge the conversation at right angles to the direction he is driving at, rather than directly opposing him. If you do that continually, you can drive the argument into a circle, but typically the other person will tire first, and permit you to start driving the argument for a while, and let him learn to push at right angles.

However, in the end, what you will teach him is far more valuable than how to not procrastinate. You'll teach him how to explore things in places he sees no immediate value in. You'll give him the set of skills to dive into such "valueless" spaces without wasting his time or energy (which he values greatly). Then, one day, he might decide to explore the idea of not-procrastinating, on his own. He doesn't see any benefit in doing things in advance, but he's learned techniques to explore such an idea without being wasteful. Lo and behold, he may discover that there is value in it that he never saw before!

And if it fails? Well, it could fail. I quite literally spent 30 years trying to learn the simple fact that it is worth learning how to do this. I'll keep learning how to do this until I die. However, all is not lost. Even if you cannot help him, all you really need to do is simply do no harm to him. He can serve as a sharpening stone for you to hone this skill yourself, and we are blessed to have such individuals in our lives. And, frankly, I've never met someone so stubborn that they can't learn from this approach, including myself! It can just take time, and so long as you feel you are becoming a better person through the process of trying to teach him, you can really take all the time you need.

  • 2
    Suggestion: have a high level 1 paragraph summary that draws the reader into the rest of the story. (This is called the Inverted Pyramid of newspaper style writing). – Clay Nichols Jun 12 '16 at 19:15
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    @claynichols, thanks for the feedback! I'll give that a shot when I get back to a computer. – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Jun 12 '16 at 19:31
  • This is an extremely good description of the process that happens that leads to this particular problem. This would make a good blog post. I think it's something that a LOT of people should read. Gifted kids often find themselves in a place where some things are hard that seem like they should be easy like slowing down their brains to do something they're supposed to. But they find out that other people know or understand a lot less, and even that they intimidate others without meaning to. So they feel dumb, but then that means that others are "dumber" but still succeed where they fail. – kmc Jun 9 '17 at 17:37
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The original poster mentioned in the comments that the teenager is "very much" a perfectionist.

Here is a possible scenario:

The boy is happy to do a task that he can do perfectly. But there are several reasons that he might not be able to do a task perfectly:

  • He might not know how to do the task perfectly.
  • He might not have a way of judging what perfection looks like.
  • There might not be a perfect way to do the task. (Essays, poetry, art, chatting with girls, and historical analysis are like this.)
  • He might not have a way of knowing whether he is doing a sub-task perfectly.
  • He might know (at a summary level) what perfection would be, but lacks the ability to do one or more sub-tasks.
  • He might not be good at breaking down a task into sub-tasks.
  • He might not be good at "listening" to people to understand what they want (which often is not what they initially ask for).
  • He might forget some of the details of the requested task. (Even most smart people forget some details.)

Being rushed might give him (an internal) excuse for not doing something perfectly.

This analysis suggests several ways that the teenager might be able to improve:

  • Change his goal from "Do it perfectly, or not at all." (with "Last-minute slap-dash rush-job" as a backup plan) to "Just make it better than it was before".
  • Get the experience of "Multiple passes, each just making it better than it was before" resulting in a better product, sooner, than trying to make something impossibly perfect the first time.
  • Read Extreme Programming Explained by Kent Beck. (This is a book that teaches computer programmers -- and the companies they work for -- to adopt this philosophy.)
  • Take notes about how to do tasks that he is not sure he knows how to do.
  • Take notes about how to judge the quality of tasks that he does not know how to evaluate.
  • Tell him not to be afraid to show his ignorance by asking questions. If he is not sure about something, then his friends probably also have doubts. And maybe someone made a mistake, and the question might help get the mistake fixed!

He should make the first sub-tasks of any project (that is likely to give him difficulty) include:

  • Understanding what is wanted
  • Breaking the task down into sub-tasks, so that he can do each sub-task at a level of quality that satisfies him, without leaving any sub-tasks out.
  • Budgeting time for the sub-tasks. (Rough average times are OK -- they just need to let him see at the end of each day whether he is ahead of his estimate, or behind.)

He should also practice checking his work. For example, he should:

  • Do check-by-substitutions at the end of each math, physics, or chemistry problem.
  • Build automated unit tests into his software projects.
  • Proofread his English papers, possibly by reading them aloud.
  • After writing an essay, confirm that he provided details to support his arguments.

Sometimes he will be trying, and still falling behind. Or perhaps his checks will fail. Encourage him to ask for help when this happens. Perhaps there is a detail of a sub-task that he forgot, or does not know how to do. Sometimes just asking will remind him of what he needs to do. And sometimes you (or his teacher, or his classmates) will be able to give him helpful advice for doing that sub-task. Occasionally the advice will be "Yeah, that just takes a long time", which will help him with his time budgeting.

2

Procrastination is not a problem limited to teenagers. This may be exacerbated if he finds the intellectual or problem solving aspect of the work easy and feeling like going through the process of getting it done is a fairly pointless chore.

Here there is a difference between him understanding the material set and going through the process of explaining to his teachers that he understands it.

I would say that you could help in two ways, first express sympathy that he has to do an apparently boring an pointless task, while emphasising that it does have potential benefits.

The second thing is to help him find an activity which is self-rewarding and a bit of effort and application produces something tangible which he can be proud of. This is not so much about giving a trivial reward for 'trying' but giving an opportunity where the learning curve is challenging enough to be interesting but also has a reasonably short term pay-off in of itself rather than an arbitrary 'reward'.

I would suggest some sort of arts or creative activity, music, drawing, sculpture, model making, carpentry, etc where the achievement and the reward are one and the same and the activity demands concentration but is pleasurable in itself. Here the thing is not to hold him up to some impossible standard of perfection but to set challenges which are difficult but rewarding ie say 'can you solve this problem?' rather than 'do this in exactly this way'.

Solving problem is fun for clever people but trying to be 'perfect' can be soul destroying especially when you know you 'should' be able to because you are talented.

  • I like your answer, but the OP keeps commenting to others that the kid has no interests. Not rouseable to anything... If he is not depressed, what could be wrong? How to find something that he does / can / will like? I didn't have this problem as a child, I had interests but no support. How do you wake up a zombie kid? What is going on with him? – user17408 Jun 9 '16 at 21:04
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Cognitive dissonance

In a nutshell it was explained in some article, as, "sour grapes" from Aesop's fables. The fox couldnt reach the grapes by jumping for them, so gave up, "...they are probably sour anyway."

For background, see this Google scholar search on "cognitive dissonance in gifted children".

The particularly enlightning article was from a few years back on a massive study (in the uk?) on encouraging children in certain ways. I could not find a link.

2

If I were the gifted kid, none of these would work. Solutions out there look like you either kind of force him to do some work(by managing his time), or just tell him how bad it is to be disorganised. First one will make him angry(and if you're not his father, this can affect your relationship with him); second one will just not work.

Here's what I would do.

If you want him to pass the exams, try to make it clear that if he doesn't do his homework, he can't really count on you. Encourage him to ask for help if he needs to throughout the entire year, not last week or two. If he fails, this isn't a bad thing. We learn by making mistakes, and sometimes one can't learn without a few. He might say that some of these things he'll never use, but the reality is that if he wants to go forward, he has to learn them - whether he likes it or not.

Secondly, if he's "gifted, but lazy" in some area(e.g. maths), try to either encourage him to do his own research, or even find and give him some tasks to complete. Motivate him - school math can be boring, but advanced math is more interesting, and same goes for other fields. If you encourage him to learn advanced math, he will both be ahead of others, and he will (probably) understand the current material.

Anyway, if he's anything like me, he won't be learning too much of things that don't interest him anyway; he'll simply think that he doesn't need them, and he'll just do the minimum of the work. It's fine.

1

What is he doing when he is not studying? I have a gifted teen and I find he gets trapped by computer games. Since he is an older teen, I talk with him about his daily schedule and setting a time that he will start work by each day. Routines help procrastinators a lot as it takes less effort if you have habits in place. Ideally these can be triggered by common events that occur, such as after lunch, I do my reading or for example, when I am on the phone I do my lunges. If he is a typical teen his mornings might be a bit groggy and his sleep cycle might be a bit off. I use an app called Flux on my computer to wind down the bright light at night. Maybe a study buddy or study group would help him get organized or motivated. Kids (and adults) these days are a lot more isolated and have their attention span fractured by electronic communication. Real life discussions, and physical movements help with brain organization. I've worked with Occupational Therapists and they have an arsenal of tricks, strategies like eating carrots or trampoline time can help some kids become more alert.

1

Many of the answers seem to assume that the kid is getting to the point where he is having difficulty in school. However, you say that his grades are still very good. I'd suggest that another possibility is that he still finds things very easy, and procrastinates because he finds the work boring and knows he can do it at the last minute and still get by.

If this is the case, see if he is ready for more advanced work, and see if you can get the school to skip him ahead in certain subjects. Alternatively, see if you can get a teacher to let him work at his own pace, faster than the rest of the class.

1

I think I know your son's problem. You see, he knows perfectly well that he ought to do his homework earlier, but whenever he tries, he suddenly decides it's time to watch three hours of video game speed runs on Youtube, or reorganize his email inbox, or check the refrigerator to see if there's anything new in there since the last time he checked 10 minutes ago. That's because there's an "instant gratification monkey" in his brain, who wreaks havoc whenever it's time to get productive work done.

He can't control the instant gratification monkey.

But there is one thing that scares the living heck out of the monkey -- the Panic Monster. The Panic Monster appears whenever a deadline looms near and there are serious consequences if it's not met. The monkey gets really scared of the Panic Monster and runs away, allowing a guy who couldn't be bothered to write the first sentence of a paper for weeks to suddenly make a great heroic effort, staying up all night to finish it.

The Instant Gratification Monkey and the Panic Monster are invented by blogger Tim Urban of the Wait But Why blog, as metaphors to explain how a procrastinator's mind works. I highly recommend you and your son both read his entire series on procrastination: http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/10/why-procrastinators-procrastinate.html

Your son can't get rid of the instant gratification monkey; it's a part of his mind that will always be with him. Instead, he has to learn strategies for dealing with the monkey. The first step on this journey is self-awareness -- he needs to be aware of the ways in which his mind works which make procrastination a problem he needs to watch out for. If he knows to frame his situation in terms of a conflict narrative where the monkey is trying to take him off course and he needs to stop it, then he has a better chance of winning the conflict because he better understands what's going on when he feels an inexplicable urge telling him that reading the complete story of every major corporate bankruptcy in the last decade is much more important right now than his math problem set -- that's the monkey talking. Some of the later blog posts in Wait But Why's series go into more detail about strategies for defeating the monkey.

It sounds from your description of your interaction that you're being too hard on him. I suspect that he knows that leaving papers to the last minute is unacceptable -- a family fight and lots of yelling from Mom and Dad just tells him -- at best! -- that his family doesn't understand what it's like to live with a monkey in your head. At worst, he starts to believe that he's a disappointment, a protagonist with a tragic flaw, some kind of incompetent oaf who somehow understands the most complicated parts of his studies far better than most of his classmates, but can't do something as simple as make himself start on an assignment any earlier than absolutely necessary -- regardless of the fact that, intellectually, he totally understands that this is a really dumb way to operate.

Don't blame him when the monkey wins -- he'll blame himself plenty. External arguments, yelling, lectures, punishments or other pressure makes him feel even less competent to deal with the monkey, which makes the monkey stronger and harder to defeat next time.

Instead, try to understand the monkey, and help design and implement plans and strategies for dealing with it.

Self-understanding and empathy are the key. Recognize that, while he has talents that many of his peers lack, he also has to face obstacles that many of his peers do not. Build up his confidence that he can understand the parts of himself that cause him to engage in self-sabotaging procrastination, then rise up and deal with the challenge.

Read the blog post I linked above (and its two sequels). You'll be very glad you did.

  • Hi @picomancer, almost good but he is not my son. Just the son of my GF – Andy K Jun 11 '16 at 17:27
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Find something they want to do, which will challenge them.

Something that will require planning, etc. to be successful at.

I suggest you find something s/he wants to do that has lots of challenging levels so that they can seek their own level and have a more challenging level to work on.

Games work best for this (it's a primary principle of "engagement" or "fun" in game design that it have Tuned Difficulty Levels (so that it's easy to make it just a little (or a lot) challenging).

BTW, I did this with my daughters and learning to use Flint & Steel to start a fire. They learned that preparation is key.

  1. Get comfortable
  2. Get your kindling all ready
  3. Practice striking the flint in a comfortable position.
  4. When you're good at it, then strike into the tinder.

Suggestions: 1. Flint & Steel (who doesn't like starting fires??) 2. Challenging Video game 3. Some physical project where you have to read the directions.

The KEY is something they want to do.

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