Brilliant but Lazy: Helping Your Underachieving Son to Succeed in School and Life

Brilliant but Lazy 

How do you motivate your underachiever when you know he has the potential to succeed in life?

One of my favorite lines from Spiderman 2 is when Peter Parker’s professor describes him- “He’s brilliant, but lazy. He’s always late to class, or absent entirely. He must stay out all night partying or something, because when he is here, he’s always exhausted, too worn out to take much initiative. He doesn’t do his homework.”

How many of us can relate to that when it comes to our sons? We nag, we threaten and we yell, but nothing seems to phase our sloth-like genius.What’s most frustrating is that we know they are capable of doing the work. It’s one thing if your son is struggling because of lack of knowledge or skill, it’s another when he’s just not motivated to do it. If you want your son to be intrinsically motivated, you have to explore the source of his underachievement.

I’ve watched my son set lofty academic goals and not meet them because he was not disciplined. We tried talking to him about studying habits and managing his time. All these suggestions were ignored.  At what point, do you step back and let your son be accountable for his grades and his future? When dealing with your brilliant but lazy son, ask yourself: Who owns the problem? Is this your son’s problem or your problem? You’re probably thinking, ‘If he fails, it becomes my problem because I’ll be blamed”. Well first, you take your son’s age and mental and emotional development.  If he’s at a stage where he can be accountable for his actions, then it’s time to redefine your role as a parent.  As your son grows, you parenting responsibilities move from directing/managing to collaborating/delegating. We equip our sons with the tools they need to move from the cycle of underachievement to achievement.

Your son needs to be committed to his own personal success. We may want our sons to be intrinsically motivated  but he needs to identify his attitudes and beliefs about himself. Does he see himself as a failure in some areas of his life? Why?  What are his limiting beliefs?  Are his beliefs turning into a self fulfilling prophecy?

One of the mistakes we made with our son was not identifying the underlying reason for his lack of motivation.  We made assumptions, we blamed social media and social change, but we didn’t acknowledge our contribution to the problem.

Here’s what we learned:

1. Create a safe space for your son to share and feel heard.  There may be hidden feelings that he does not feel comfortable sharing with you.

2 . Set guidelines and show him how to balance “work and play time”.  Be consistent with helping him manage his time. This is something we struggle with as adults.  Think about how much time do you spend on social media.

3. Show him how to problem solve. Teach your son to be resourceful.  As he grows, life will become more complicated and challenging. He needs to be able to confront adversity and focus on solutions. Let him see problems as learning opportunities rather than setbacks.

4. Help him to recognize his abilities. He needs to know his own potential. If you are constantly praising him, he may become addicted to praise instead of recognizing his own strengths.

5.  Build his self-awareness.  Self-reflection gives  your son insight into his goals and his plans for the future.

6.  Help your son to see the lessons in failure.  Let him know mistakes are part of life. Be an example of resiliency by showing him how you rebound from your mistakes.

7.  Teach him self management skills. He will need these skills when he is dealing with a frustrating or challenging situation. If he falters under pressure, it will require more effort to get him to get back up.

8.  Be flexible in your approach. Your frustration will not be a catalyst for your his transformation.

9. Don’t project your unfulfilled dreams on your son. Help him to blaze his own trails.

10. Don’t use shame to motivate your son. Shaming just produces feelings of inadequacies and resentment.

Keep in mind, that your son needs your guidance in order to achieve success in life. He also needs you to model the behavior. Therefore, you need to address your own underachievement in order to help your son.

Photo: Slightly Everything/Flickr

Originally appeared at Raising Great

About Marie Roker-Jones

Marie Roker-Jones is a wife and mom of two boys. She is a NAMA Certified Anger Management Specialist, Youth Mental Health First Aider, and Certified Male Youth Life Skills Trainer She is the senior editor of the Raising Boy section of The Good Men Project and the Founder of Raising Great Men™ which provides parenting programs and workshops for raising boys and navigating the challenges of military deployments. Marie created #ManYouWantToBe, programs that help boys and young men to "mind up", not man up. Marie is co-founder of #CompassionConvos, #CompassionConvos are cross and inter-generational conversations using social media, online and in person around difficult subjects of bias. Conversations include, and are not limited to racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. These conversations challenge biases through dialogue and taking action. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and G+


  1. Why is this article only about boys as underachievers? Why make it gendered? Underachieving girls needs all the same support. I don’t understand why this article was made to focus specifically on “sons.” It’s ridiculous.

    • Because this is the ‘Good MEN Project.’ I was an underachieving girl who wishes her mom, dad, gaggle of parental figures had been invested enough to look for answers, so I understand that girls would benefit from this type of support. All you have to do is replace the male pronouns with female pronouns in your mind and follow the advice.

    • Hi Martha,

      This article is in the Raising Boys section. Thank you Sandra for your response. I, too, was an underachieving girl, unlike my brother. It was a struggle especially during middle school.

  2. Anonymous says:

    A related thought close to my heart at the moment (a good friend from my past is withdrawing from opiates… The joy!).

    How do you undercut the apparent benefits of incompetence, without just laying down “Be A Man, Dammit”?

    (In this case, feel the pain. It won’t kill you. Learn to take what the old lady next door puts up with daily — constant joint pain. At least it will be over for you in a month. She is in it for the long haul! And look how she manages. As much of a jerk as that makes me, I am here to be a better friend.)

    Guys are, in my experience, paranoid about punishment. Incompetence acts as some kind of shield for the ego. Don’t learn to cook, don’t take responsibility for anything, don’t be emotionally clear with yourself, don’t even take your medication as prescribed, and someone will come rescue you.

    The advice from the NerdLove article points out how we do this for the socially under-performing all the time. But it does not help address it, just insists we not write it off over and over again.

  3. Jon Obermark says:

    Cool. Apply this to social skills as well. I was a model student, but my parents cut me a total bye on getting along with other boys. But then they assumed I would be just fine in a profession composed almost exclusively of men (mathematics and computer programming). And it did not even cross their minds that I might hate male behavior, but be gay…

  4. Joanna Schroeder says:

    Ummmmm I’m not saying I relate, but… I relate 😉

  5. John Anderson says:

    I was that kid and in many respects still am. I don’t know how much money I spent in late fees not because I didn’t have the money, but because I was too lazy to make the payment. This I overcame with personal effort although part of it is being able to pay things on line and schedule payments, etc.

    When I was going to school though even in grad school, my problem was focus. I was surprised that I was always invited to join groups. One classmate said it was because I was a high achiever who worked hard and never was afraid to take on the tough parts. It’s probably because I never viewed it as hard. I always teamed with a specific woman. She read the syllabus, compartmentalized and defined the problem, and watched over me to ensure I was staying on target with the group assignment and the class. I did a ton of the heavy lifting when it came to research, ideas, creativity, and work. It was focus that I lacked.

    I was surprised when another classmate told me that he overheard several of the professors talking and their consensus was that I would be the model student for the program. I never and don’t consider myself the model student for any program. Maybe your son’s not lazy. He just doesn’t know how or where to direct his efforts.

  6. Marie Jones says:

    Hi Marj
    To love your son is the most important and these strategies are part of loving your son-acceptance, crwating a safe space, helping him to recognize his strengths.

  7. From my own experience, the problem does not lie in our children, but in the way we micro manage their lives and force them to go to school in the first place!

    I could go in details about how I see the situation from a whole different perspective and yes, LOVING THEM without judgment. To claim that they are under achievers may promote this article, but I truly believe that this is a very small step towards depression and burnout…

    J Kaikan Boyd

  8. Am I just not seeing the point that says: “Love your son as well”? Strategies are all very well, but I’d posit that you need love to underpin all of this.

    Just my opinion of course.

Speak Your Mind