Q. Our oldest child, almost 11 and in the sixth grade, is bright, charming, has a terrific sense of humor -- and unfortunately, is an underachiever.

At 4, he taught himself to read. When he began school, his teachers said, "He's the kind of child you love to have in class," and we assumed he would sail through school. He has always been positive, easy-going and self-confident.

In intelligence testing he is rated high-average to superior. He has always been a good reader, displays a lot of curiosity and has no trouble grasping concepts or information.

What, then, is the problem? Since first grade, the refrain from his teachers has been the same: He doesn't finish his work on time because he is daydreaming. He fails to hand in assignments. He does the least amount of work in the least amount of time. He is not concerned with quality.

His report cards reflect his inconsistency: Every subject has every grade from A to C. His teachers recognize that he is very intelligent and a "thinker," and they share our disappointment that he is not using his talents. He spends more time dreaming up implausible excuses than he does on his assignments. Homework time is unhappily becoming a battleground.

We don't expect him to bring home straight A's, but we do expect him to use his talents and to take some pride in his work. He feels good about himself when his grades are good or when he puts effort into a project, but for the most part, schoolwork is not important to him.

Is he bored? Maybe. What can we do? I don't know -- and neither do his teachers.

A. You can start by letting him be.

It's tempting to push the smart child along, especially when his teachers say he should do more, but some children need to fool around more than others. And is he really fooling around so much?

He isn't making C's to F's; he's making A's to C's. And more important than that, he's curious, he loves to read, he understands concepts, he grasps information.

He is, in short, interested in learning, despite what he obviously considers the silly business that goes with it.

The same teachers who expect him to do his homework also must make him see why he should do it and why he should do it well -- and it has to be for more than good marks. Without a good reason for doing something, a bright child often lets his mind drift.

If your son still gets an A (or a B or a C) for turning in sloppy, incomplete papers, he's going to keep turning them in. He subconsciously asks himself why he should do a math problem over and over at night when he's sure he learned how to do it that day -- and since he doesn't do the homework, he won't realize he's forgotten until it's time to take the test.

It's the teacher's job to be more demanding and your job to be supportive.

Assume that your child's best subjects are the ones he likes best, and help him capitalize on them. If he likes to make up stories for English, give him an elegant blank book in which to write some for himself, or let him try the family typewriter. When you encourage a child's innate talent, you subtly tell him that here is where he excels -- and so he does. As you bolster his self-esteem, you also teach him the pleasure of excellence.

You fortify his new-found standards at home by seeing that he gets nutritious food (a child needs two to three times more protein to grow than an adult), nine or 10 hours of sleep at night and time to relax.

It's nearly always better for a child to play -- preferably outdoors -- after school: He's been answering to others for six hours. Then there's the family dinner -- with help from him before and after -- followed by homework.

While you don't demand that he sit down and do his homework right now, or watch over his shoulder while he does it, you do provide a quiet room with a good light and no distractions. This means no TV, Monday through Thursday nights. This may seem almost heretical, but a secretary doesn't watch a sitcom at the office and a student doesn't mix his work with play. Moreover, he isn't allowed to watch "as soon as he's finished," which invites speed and carelessness, or to watch if he has no homework, which makes it tempting to believe there is none.

Homework should be considered a part of his job. You only ask him what his assignments are every day; tell him where to find answers (if he asks) and compliment him on his work when it's done.

Once homework isn't a battlefield, you can point out errors, but don't demand that he change them. When your child knows he can choose his own consequences, he will want to improve. To a child, this can make more sense than an A.

Questions may be sent to Family Almanac, P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003. 1985, Tribune Media Services, Inc.