As parents, we often have high expectations for our kids. We are well aware of the hard work and self-starting attitudes they need that are the cornerstones of success in today’s world.
So, what if you’re not seeing these behaviors and attitudes reflected in your kids? It’s only natural to feel concerned. If your child has trouble staying motivated, organized, and on top of things, they just need a little coaxing and incentive. Right?
I’ve seen the smartest, most hard-working, and innovative parents try to motivate their children by giving advice, issuing warnings or threats, doling out punishments, and leaning on incentive systems and other external motivators.
This approach has two big problems: first, it keeps our kids dependent on us instead of helping them learn to do things for themselves. Perhaps even more importantly, it misses the fact that kids are driven by their own motives, not ours. External motivation keeps the focus in the wrong place and, if anything, inhibits the development of internal motivation in a developing adult.
Daniel Pink deftly corroborates this fact in his book and video Drive, where he explains that external motivation systems, with their traditional carrot-and-stick approach, actually reduce motivation and the ability to think effectively on complex tasks. In other words, there is no way that you can continually motivate your child in any meaningful way. Even praise is not a viable source of motivation. Parenting guru Alfie Kohn points out that without internal motivation, our kids can become “praise junkies” who lose enthusiasm if they’re not constantly receiving a boost from someone else. Much like adults, children need a sense of purpose stemming from within to succeed. Only by tapping into that internal drive can we help them bring their full capacities to bear in whatever they pursue.
When parents recognize that we can’t simply provide the motivation, some find this comforting while others find it frustrating. When I work with parents who want to help their children become organized self-starters, we always start in the same place - by reframing the question, “How can I motivate my child?” to “For my particular child, what is the intersection of their talent and passion?” Locating that sweet spot provides a meaningful incentive for a child to develop skills and to work hard. A fuller and more effective version of the reframe is to ask, “How can I help my child find what gets them motivated, and how can I set up those conditions, so they find their own sense of purpose and drive?”
As you search yourself for answers to this complex question, the following tactics will jumpstart the process of helping your child become more motivated and ultimately, more successful, not only in areas that they already love but even in places that do not initially inspire them:
Encourage them to gather facts about their performance. The aim here is to help your child learn how to build on a strength. If your kid is already good at something but doesn’t seem to push themselves, skip the lecture about how they’re wasting their potential. Whether it’s soccer, science, or the saxophone, what works better is asking them to gather facts about their performance. Asking a question like, “Hey buddy, how many shots in a row can you make from that spot on the court?” motivates your child in three ways. First, you’ve thrown down the gauntlet and subtly challenged them. Second, you’ve made your child curious and focused on a specific aspect of their performance. Third, you have oriented your child toward collecting data. All three aspects—challenge, curiosity, and interest in data—drive and enhance motivation.
Ask what they love to do, but don't ask why. Sometimes our kids have interests and skills that we don’t even know about. The parents of one of my students asked me to encourage their child to play lacrosse, so she would have an extracurricular under her belt. I asked the student what she thought of lacrosse, and she wasn’t thrilled. When I asked her what she would like to do if she could do anything, she timidly said, “I’d like to do improv comedy.” In that moment, instead of asking “why,” which can often be interpreted as “Why would you like to do that silly thing that has no real value?” I asked her, “What do you love about it?” She said, “Can you imagine? You get all the fun of comedy but with a team!” That student went on to develop the first ever Improv Club at her high school. That shift from doing to impress others to doing because they have the drive motivates kids to take a risk.
Offer to help with a project or problem, but respect their “no.” When we offer our kids advice or help, it’s our job to notice if we are truly giving them choice or if we’re forcing them to take the help. The best way to test whether your child feels forced is to do what is known as “knocking before entering”. To do this, simply ask your child if this is a good time to discuss their homework since it is on your mind. If they say it’s not, ask them if it’s about the timing or if it’s about them not wanting your help on the assignment. If it’s the timing, work on a mutually agreeable time, and put a time limit on how long you’ll be available to help, especially if they’re not wildly enthusiastic about your support to begin with. If they decline your offer to help, it’s important to accept that “no means no.” If you know your child does, in fact, need the help, there are other options outside of your direct involvement. Find a way to get your child the help they need from a teacher, aunt or uncle, or someone else they’re willing to listen to.
Let them tell you how they felt about their performance. My older daughter is in musical theater, and my younger daughter is a competitive athlete. After shows and games, they always want to hear what my wife and I think. We give the feedback, but we first ask them what they think. Before crowding out their potential insights with our own opinions, we want to make sure they get to express themselves. This develops the skill of reflection, an Executive Function skill that is essential to more complex and systematic thinking, which allows us to make improvements in any aspect of one’s life. While we don’t hesitate to let them know our perspective on important matters, such as work habits and how they treat people, we don’t have to race to offer our point of view on every little thing.
Although Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take,” we need to bear in mind that our kids get diminishing credit for the shots their parents make them take or take for them! If we want our kids to grow wiser as they grow older, they’ve got to find their own motivation through some success and some failure. As most adults understand, success is sweet, but some amount of failure is good food for growth and self-motivation.
While our kids need us to be kind and encouraging to reach their potential, they also need to know as they get older that they will be okay without our regular intervention, a belief that will only develop if they see proof that it’s true.
Looking for more parenting tips and strategies to help your child be successful in school and beyond? Michael Delman's book Your Kid's Gonna Be Okay: Building the Executive Function Skills Your Child Needs in the Age of Attention is available in print and as an e-book. Download a free excerpt below.