One question that I'm often asked as I travel around the country and give parenting workshops is how to motivate kids so they will drive their own successes. Actually, that's not usually how parents frame the question. Instead, I get questions like: How do I get my kid to do his homework, how can I get her to pick up her things; I have a child who does the minimum in school: how can I make her want to get good grades?
As parents, we want our kids to be self-directed, we want them to be inspired about life, we want them to be engaged and enthusiastic. Most of all, we want them to care and when we fail to see this from them—when we have to be "on" them about every little thing, we get frightened and often redouble our efforts to "motivate" our kids, sometimes resorting to unsavory tactics like blame, shame, ridicule, predictions (you'll never amount to anything!), punishment, etc. It's important to know that these tactics usually have the opposite effect and end up shutting kids down.
There are three things that parents need to understand about motivating kids. First, and foremost, you can't make someone care about anything. This strikes fear into the hearts of parents who want to know how to motivate kids to do the things they're supposed to do, but it's the truth. In fact, let me say it again because it bears repeating: you can't make somebody care.
Although this is a realization that most parents come to after creating a lot of stress for themselves and their kids, there are solutions re: how to motivate kids, but first, let me tell you a story to illustrate how deeply ingrained this idea is in our society. When I was in high school, I had a friend named Gigi who was a beautiful girl, but deeply insecure. She was in love with a guy who barely noticed her. She did everything that she could think of to get his attention, but he just wasn't interested. She was continually whining and imploring, "How can I make him love me?" Finally, one day, I'd had enough and blurted out the cold, hard truth: "You can't make somebody love you … you can't make somebody care."
She stared at me dumbfounded and then continued to put all her energy into trying to make this guy like her. Of course he never did. In other words, it was wasted effort.
The next big thing for parents to learn about motivating kids is that motivation is fueled by interest. Interest can be sparked by many things: intellectual curiosity, natural strengths, a desire to belong, the thrill of competition and of being competent in a certain area. This is the big secret of motivating kids: finding out what they're interested in (even if it has little to do with school or sports and doesn't interest you). The trick is to listen, support and encourage their exploration of the topic. a (I devote an entire chapter on how to motivate kids to this in my parenting book, Keepers of the Children: Native American Wisdom and Parenting.
Interest reveals the strengths in a child's heart and motivation comes from those strengths. Since my work is all about cultivating children's strengths, I discourage parents from demanding that kids get good grades in every subject. Unfortunately, our school system is built around this belief that we have to be masters of everything, but this flies in the face of human nature. All of us have an area that we are particularly strong in and if we develop this, then we have something special to give to the world and a foundation for creating a meaningful life. You've heard the saying, "Jack of all trades, master of nothing." Is this what we're raising our kids to be?
Another key with regard to understanding how to motivate kids is that
kids who are passionate about nothing are usually kids who have been
demoralized and discouraged by the unrelenting pressures put on them by
adults. Yes, we want our kids to succeed and to be able to support
themselves, but at what cost? Are we willing to lose them in the
process? Are we willing to drive them so hard and needle them so often
that they lose interest in everything? This, folks, is called depression
and it's the beginning of the end. Kids who are stuck in a cycle of
disappointment and frustration, kids who have a low estimation of their
worth and ability to tackle problems, although defiant and seemingly
lazy, are the ones who most desperately need our help.
The trick is to engage your child's interests and encourage him. (I give you strategies for doing this in my previously mentioned book.) Believe me, these interests will transfer to other areas of life because it's the love of learning and the joy of discovery that are ultimately important to child's ability to find his way through life.
Finally, trust in the arc of your child's development. Know that with time, faith and your support, your child will discover and commit to becoming the person that he or she was meant to be. For those of you who may need extra guidance about how to motivate kids, consider taking my online self-paced course.
Copyright © 2012 by Laura Ramirez. All rights reserved.
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