Dear Virginia,

My son of eight is doing badly at school. I know he's clever, but he just can't be bothered. He's so lazy. I have told him he won't get a birthday party this year unless he tries harder, and his stepfather sometimes gets really angry when he sees his marks. His teachers are getting fed up, too. His own father says we should be more encouraging, but there's no point. He can do the work, it's just that he won't. Is there anything we can do?

Yours sincerely, Pippa

I wonder if you have tried beating him with iron bars and then locking him in a cupboard for the night? Or telling him that unless he works the Ghastly Goblins will come and carry everyone he loves away into the night, leaving him alone in a cold world? Might work, you never know.

Honestly... this boy is only eight. Children of eight are very rarely lazy. Indeed I'm not sure that anyone is really lazy. They're just stultified in some way or another, usually by fear that they're not as good as everyone else thinks they are, or scared they'll get the answer wrong, or, which is something you haven't thought of, just incredibly bored by the work they're doing, and longing for something more challenging.

Have neither you nor his step- father ever read the Aesop's fable about the competition between the sun and the wind? If not, pay attention, you 'orrible pair, and no snoozing in the back or you'll get your ears boxed (since that's the kind of language you thrive on, clearly). One day, the wind and the sun argued about who could get a man to take his coat off quickest and had a contest. The wind started, and he blew and he blew and he blew, colder and colder. He hoped to blow the man's coat clean away, but instead, the man clutched it closer to him, buttoning it up and turning up the collar. When it was the sun's turn, however, he simply beamed down until finally the man flung off his coat and basked in the warmth.

What your boy needs is encouragement, not threats and punishment. And if this goes completely against your grain, then look at it like this. Threats and punishments haven't worked, so why not try this new method, just to indulge me, just to see if it works. Tell your son that he's clever. Look at his homework with him and praise him to the skies when he gets the right answers. Take his side against the idiot teachers who are scolding him. When he does well, get him to show the work to his stepfather and get him to clap the child on the back. Tell him, both of you, that if he fails or doesn't do well it just doesn't matter because you both love him. And get the teachers in on the act. Find out if it might not be a good idea if he's moved from his class – either up or down, whichever would make him feel more secure.

I remember my son doing extremely badly in geography although he was as bright as the next boy. Before a particularly crucial exam I asked his rather fierce geography teacher to have a word with him. He took him into his office and told him how good he was and how he had nothing to fear. And the result was that he passed with flying colours.

Of course it's no good praising rubbish work done by someone who is incapable of doing it. That won't get you anywhere. But sometimes, particularly with people who are basically bright, confidence can make them brighter. And the knowledge that it doesn't matter a pin whether they fail or not can make them relax sufficiently to do well, rather than become frozen with terror as they sit at a desk.

Readers say...

Give him a break

Let's assume your son is as clever as you say he is. He will only achieve his potential if you support and encourage him, and let him know that school work isn't the only thing in life. So let him have his birthday party. What if something is stopping him from doing as well as he could – some kind of learning difficulty for instance? You'll need to get to the bottom of this, which will be much harder if you carry on with the anger and hassle. Either way, you must give him a break. Ask yourself: do I want my son to do quite well at school now, or would I prefer him to be a happy, grounded and healthy individual for the rest of his life? It's your choice. Let him off the hook. After all, he's only eight.

Oh, and I suspect his teachers are not "getting fed up with him". They wouldn't be very good teachers if they were. Andrew Colley

Halstead, Essex

You must be consistent

Father says, "be more encouraging", stepfather gets "really angry", his teachers are "getting fed up too" (but with whom?) and a birthday party is receding into the distance. Until you decide on a coherent policy, this little chap is going to continue to withdraw his labour.

Just because this eight-year-old is bright does not mean he finds academic work easy, and on top of everything else he senses a clash of opinion among the most important people in his life. He sounds as unhappy with the situation as his parents. This family needs to get around the table, with his teachers too, and decide on a clear and supportive approach, with small, achievable targets. After all, what has he to look forward to? One perceived failure to "try harder" (however that is measured), and that birthday treat has gone. What next? Christmas? Next year's birthday? And should you be placing so much emphasis on his marks? There's more to life, and your relationship with your son, than that.

Dinah Ellis

Weymouth, Dorset

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Stick up for your son

When I first read your letter I got really angry, then I realised that it was myself that I was angry with. I've been there too. Please listen to yourself. Your little boy is not lazy, he's disturbed, and no wonder – he has enough problems to deal with, with his parents divorced (the people he loves and depends on most in the world) and with another adult, who probably doesn't love him, being angry with him. (I don't blame your husband, he just sees a little boy who's lazy.) His father seems to be the only one who's on his side! What he needs now is understanding and encouragement. You must build up his self- confidence. If you stick up for him maybe your husband will start to see him in a different light. I took rather too long to see the light I'm afraid, and shall always regret it.

Name and address supplied

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Take the pressure off

There are two things I would do straightaway. Firstly, step back and take the pressure off. Secondly, get to see an educational psychologist to assess him properly. Bright eight- year-olds, in my experience, do well at school without trying unless there is a problem not of their own making

Dr Peter Glover

Rayleigh, Essex

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