What does it mean to “underachieve?” In everyday vocabulary, we substitute the word “failure” for underachievement, and rarely, if ever, do we see the word underachieve in newspapers and magazines. How are we then to understand what it means to underachieve?
However, considering the intense perfectionism that drives Gifted Children, it seems appropriate to consider the notion of underachievement as it relates to this population with special needs. And, to consider it from the perspective of children.
Most often, Gifted Children are acutely aware of their perceived limits and shortcomings, especially when comparing their work with others who are more qualified, including adults. But what if there is no one to remind them that to be a child means that you are in the process of learning and is not expected to do things perfectly? What pressure society puts on our children, and all of us, in its intolerance for failure. If it were understood that learning anything is a process versus a result, would there even be the need for such a word as underachievement, I wonder? What if we were to support those who feel they are underachievers by reframing this mental concept, validating their efforts and helping them to understand that implicit within learning is the notion of not knowing and not having to be perfect?
For example, imagine a gifted child who is unsatisfied with her attempts to paint, who feels like she is a failure and wants to throw her work into the trash. What if her parent intervened by asking her questions that facilitated her recognition that her value and self-worth is not determined by what she produces but by who she is.
Father: Why do you say that your drawing is rubbish?
Child: Because the colours are ugly, and I could not draw a face well. And, my cat looks like a potato.
Father: Did you have an image in your head when drawing this cat? Were you thinking about the cat we read about yesterday?
Child: Yes, that cat looked so nice – not like mine. I’m not going to draw anymore.
Father: Tell me more about the cat in the book we read: why did you like it so much?
Child: I liked it because it looked like a real cat!
Father: Do you think it is easy to draw a cat like that? Do you think it might take practice?
Father: Do you think that learning to draw might be the same as learning how to read and write at school?
Father: How could we help you to learn how to draw like the artist in the book?
Child: I don’t know.
Father: If you are really interested, we could find you a class where you could learn.
Child: I see.
Father: If I tried to draw a cat, I would probably be disappointed in the result too since I have never taken drawing classes. But, I would remind myself that drawing, like cooking or singing, is a learned skill and there is nothing wrong with me if I cannot draw perfectly. However, if you asked me to play the piano, I would do better because I have studied and practiced.
Notice how this conversation doesn’t deny or make the child wrong for feeling disappointed in their work. Having these kinds of conversations early in their development will encourage self-compassion, self-respect and self-love.
Another helpful suggestion is to openly discuss what success means to your child, and what she thinks it means to her teachers and her friends. Just talking about it openly and honestly can expose and relieve anxiety, pressure and stress, and help him to better understand what really is expected of him versus his projections and interpretations.
Food for Thought: Remember, too, that our children often mirror our own anxieties back to us. Do you worry about being an underachiever? How does this affect how you talk to yourself and treat yourself? Are you harsh and unforgiving of your own perceived failures? Or, are you kind and accepting of your own limitations? What impact does your self-talk have on your motivation? Are you passing on your own impossible standards to your child through your words, moods and actions? Feeling not good enough is a chronic human condition. Isn’t it time to release yourself and your children from an impossible to attain definition of success that steals your joy and attacks your self-esteem?
Then, we could all recognize that we are works in progress, and enjoy trying – even when we don’t get it right the first time or the second; accepting set-backs as a natural and necessary landmark on the path of learning. Even the Gifted Child can learn, with our help, that her attempts are always worthy and that we do not judge her for her perfect or imperfect results.
In conclusion, if to achieve means to enjoy the process of learning, to feel alive while doing, then wouldn’t the question shift from, “Am I an underachiever?” to “How can I find more joy in what I do?”
Marion Franc is a Mentor and Coach for gifted children, and their parents.
Caring for the Gifted Child