Motivating Children: Tips for Tapping Their Inner Drive
Think your child is lazy and unmotivated? Perhaps you just haven’t found the right motivational mojo. Kids’ lack of motivation is a top parenting complaint, but in truth, every child can be motivated to cooperate and meet goals, from free-spirited toddlers to moody, melodramatic teens. And it’s not about bribes, either. Experts say effective motivation taps into a child’s inner drive to create a win-win situation for parents and kids that doesn’t rest on external rewards. (No candy or gold stars required!) Ready to get on the motivation train? Read on!
Beyond proffering a sugary treat to win compliance, can babies and tots truly be motivated? Absolutely, says licensed therapist Lynn Finley of Forsyth Family Counseling in Winston-Salem. Infants are naturally motivated to meet their own needs, starting at birth, she says. “Children under age 3 are motivated by their own successes in controlling their environment. Children have natural curiosity. If this curiosity brings pleasure or success, they want to learn more.” Unstructured play, where babies and toddlers can learn about cause and effect — building a block tower and knocking it down, for example — helps build intrinsic motivation, she says. The power of play can also boost motivation to complete simple tasks and chores: When your child wants to move from one play environment to the next, to instill positive habits, ask him to pick up the toys he was playing with first.
Homework often starts arriving in early grade school, but motivation to do the work doesn’t always follow suit. “The onset of homework for a child can be a transition for everyone in the household,” says Kristin A. Perret, staff psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “Establishing an after-school routine can ease some of the related troubles. By doing so, we limit guesswork about the expectations of the afternoon.” Another way to boost motivation is to stop calling it homework. When asked about homework, many children will say they don’t have any, says Finley, but parents shouldn’t let them off the hook so fast: It’s likely they still need to study for a project or quiz. To ease homework struggles, rename homework time study time and give kids input on when it will happen. Help your child organize her study space and remember to allow time to transition from play to focused work time.
When your teen appears especially idle and unmotivated, look closer. He may be undergoing completely normal biologically based changes related to growing up. One reason teens appear lazy and unmotivated to parents may be the structure of the teenage brain.
“The brain goes through a lot a change during the adolescent years, including normal pruning of the synapses, or connections between neurons in the brain,” Finley says.
Teens’ brains no longer need the overabundance of synapses leftover from early childhood; pruning strips away connections that aren’t needed in order to make remaining synapses stronger. During this process, teens may appear lazy, misread emotional cues and respond out of turn. Cope by improving communication with your teen, keeping an open mind and upping your patience (this too shall pass!). And remember that the teen years are a time to explore new interests, Perret says. When a teen appears to lose motivation for a once-loved pastime, it may signal that he’s reaching out for a different horizon.
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.