Experts have been arguing about the best ways to inspire kids to perfection, from waking up and getting out of bed on time to paying attention in school to participating in sports or other physical activity.
Some children seem to be born gung-ho with focused and directed energy. Others – not so much. Even an enthusiastic youngster can have a lackluster day.
How, then, to motivate a child?
Old-school thinking was based on emphasizing rewards and falling back on punishments in extreme cases. “If you make your bed I will give you some candy,” may be very effective initially but create a sugar addiction in the child and pair the feeling of accomplishment with eating high-calorie food. Neither is desirable, of course.
New-age experts of child behavior believe that, after making sure a disobedient or downright lazy offspring isn’t suffering from a learning disability or some diagnosable behavioral disorder, it’s time to start teaching the life lesson called Consequences to Actions.
“If you make your bed it will be lovely when you want to go to sleep,” you might say. If that positive motivation doesn’t work, you can try the opposite tack: “You don’t get to goof off until you make your bed.”
It is vital to follow through with the stated consequences. At the same time, pay attention to which chores your kids do and don’t like to do. Have a family meeting to talk about why Email doesn’t like to load the dishwasher while Ben avoids raking leaves. Perhaps a re-assignment of tasks is in order?
Talking to your children honestly about why they do or don’t perform activities assigned to them can be quite eye-opening. It’s an opportunity for parents to back away from a one-on-one battle of the wills and give the kids a chance to vent a bit and sort things out to everyone’s satisfaction, ideally.
Like wild animals, children can sense when a parent is uptight about non-performance. But children have a different mindset from adults, where taking out the garbage really doesn’t seem that important, for instance.
Teach your progeny that, in the real world of adults, non-performers suffer, get left behind the pack, fired from good jobs, and shamed for generations to come. (Use your judgment on that last one.)
Be the leader (or co-leader) in your family and inspire your children by example: practice what you preach. Rather than use language and behaviors to control your kids, model someone who motivates you. If you don’t have such a person, perhaps that is being mirrored to your observant and clever child?
All of us, regardless of age, like empowerment which involves the ability to choose for ourselves. Rather than order your child to do homework, lay out the boundaries with consequences of actions: “If you don’t walk the dog, your game-playing time will be cut by 30 minutes. If you don’t walk the dog and it poops in the house, your game-playing time will be cut for three days and you will have to clean up the mess.”
Pay attention to your inattentive child and learn what does motivate her or him. Talk about hobbies, dreams, and how they see themselves in the future. Let your child tell you how best to encourage them to get off the bench and start hitting some homers.
Your child is not a little adult but is a unique individual. Adjust your expectations accordingly. Avoid setting standards of behavior that are unrealistically high.
When I tutored music students, it was easy to spot the parents who wished they had taken lessons and were forcing their kids to do something in which the kids had absolutely no interest. We always made the best of it but these students usually didn’t last long.
One potent motivator I discovered was allowing my pupils to do something physical. One 7-year-old boy was delighted when I told him that mastering a 5-finger scale on the piano with both hands at once would earn him a bounding run around the dining room table – with mom’s permission, of course.
Another troubled 10-year-old girl whose parents were separated and heading for divorce told me she liked to jump so her reward for reaching challenging goals was to rise from the piano bench and try to reach the ceiling, which was just out of reach. After a short break, she was ready to pick up where we had left off.
Asking children who inspires them and what it would take to get them to do something unpleasant can be a real eye-opener. Rather than demand results, partner with your kids to develop their strengths and talents, foster their sense of self-worth and the knowledge they can be successful through focus and follow-through.
Listen to the difference when one of my favorite workout video instructors corrected himself to one of his team members when referring to the home audience. First, he said, “Make them work!” He immediately switched the focus from the trainer to the trainee:
“Make them want to work!”
And that is the simple secret behind all human motivation: find out what the other person values, make sure you don’t impose your will on theirs, and lead by modeling inspiring behavior. Teach how personal and societal outcomes work in response to our actions as we get older.
Finally, be prepared to accept failure. Although it seems unlikely, maybe there really is nothing that motivates or inspires your child. Or maybe you just can’t communicate effectively.
If you know you’ve done your best to guide, uplift, educate, and nurture your child’s abilities and interests while instilling a sound sense of ethics and the moral high ground, that’s all you can do. Don’t beat yourself up if your kid doesn’t meet your expectations.
This does not mean you should give up on your child who is changing and evolving constantly. Patience, hope, and optimism are the best attitudes to embrace. Today’s obstacles may find an unforeseen solution tomorrow.