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The Big Cop-Out

Is your child an underachiever?
Here's what to do.

Legend has it that preteen Albert Einstein, for all his future genius, was a ho-hum student. Whatever hope that might provide to parents whose seemingly bright children are performing below expectations, recent research suggests a different course.

Academic underachievers--students whose grade-point averages don't measure up to the potential suggested by aptitude tests--rarely catch up to their similarly talented classmates. "An underachieving diamond in the rough," says University of Pittsburgh psychologist Robert B. McCall, Ph.D., "tends to stay in the rough."

McCall and his colleagues have tracked the progress--or lack thereof--of more than 6,700 underachievers. Their grim findings: 13 years after high school, only about 15 percent of the underachievers had attained career success consistent with their abilities. They earned less money and dropped out of school more often than less-talented peers with comparable academic records. Even their personal lives suffered: their marriages were 50 percent more likely to end in divorce.

Why do underachievers fail? "They lack persistence in the face of challenge," says McCall. "They check out." While an average student might vow to train harder after losing a 100-meter dash, an underachiever quits the team, declaring, "No one ever lost a race he never ran."

In addition to lacking "stick-to-itiveness," underachievers also tend to be overly self-critical. They have poor self-esteem, set unrealistic goals, and fear failure and success. Many are loners. Their ranks include about twice as many boys as girls, but there seems to be little correlation between under-achievement and socioeconomic class.

Where economic status matters is prognosis, reports McCall in Current Directions in Psychological Science (Vol. 3, No. 1). Despite the discouraging data, counselors are not lying when they tell concerned parents that their underachieving child may eventually get his act together. The parents most likely to seek the help of counselors and psychologists are successful and educated--exactly the type of parents whose child most often does eventually catch up to his potential.

Although it is frustrating, there is little most parents can do for an underachieving child. Since many parents unintentionally foster dependence by being too helpful, McCall recommends that parents "try harder not to try so hard to help their children."

Instead, he advises that parents seek professional help, gently teach their children the art of persistence, and love them for what they are rather than what they might seem capable of accomplishing.