Kenneth Barish, PhD
As a child and adolescent therapist, I am often told, “He’s not motivated. All he wants to do is watch television or play video games.” Parents, worried about their child’s future, urgently ask, “Why doesn’t she put more effort into her schoolwork?”; “Why can’t she ‘connect the dots’ between effort and success?”; “Why doesn’t he care?”
Many parents have come to believe that their child is “lazy.”
The answer to these questions, however, is almost always, “Because your child is discouraged.” Discouragement, the story goes, is the devil’s favorite tool, “because it makes all my other tools more effective.”
Children may hide their discouragement with defiant or rebellious attitudes, or by blaming others, and they may pretend that they don’t care. Often, they will seek relief in activities that require little sustained effort and that offer, instead, an immediate feeling of success.
To solve the problem of a child’s lack of motivation, we need to return to first principles: Children, when they are not angry or discouraged, want to do well. They want to earn our praise and approval, and they want us to be proud of them. Children may say that they don’t care, but they do care.
Sustained effort is a different matter. Our ability to work hard, to sustain effort at any task, requires a feeling of accomplishment or progress along the way and some confidence in our eventual success. All constructive activity involves moments of anxiety, frustration and discouragement. Children who are “not motivated” too readily give in to these feelings. They do not bounce back.
How often do we understand the problem of our children’s motivation in this way? How often do we see a child’s lack of effort not as a problem of discouragement but as a “behavior” problem? How often do we blame the influence of peers, or television and other media distractions? How often do we become frustrated and angry, and then, in our frustration, tell him that he just has to work harder?
Children are not lazy. They may be frustrated and discouraged, anxious or angry; they may have become disillusioned or defiant, self-critical or pessimistic, and they may lack confidence in their ability. But this is not laziness. The misconception that kids are lazy is one of the most common – and most destructive – misunderstandings of children.
Undiagnosed (or under-appreciated) attention and learning disorders are the most common source of discouragement and lack of sustained effort (“motivation”) in children. For these children, doing schoolwork or homework is like running with a sprained ankle – it is possible, although painful, and they will look for ways to avoid or postpone this frustrating and discouraging task. Or they may run ten steps and then find a reason to stop. Even mild or moderate attention and learning problems can be a source of anxiety and frustration for children, leading to discouragement, pessimism and giving up.
What Can We Do?
Fortunately, with patience, there are solutions to the problem of a child’s lack of motivation and effort. Here are five principles parents can use in helping children with this common, but often difficult, problem.
1) Motivation begins with interest.
The solution to a child’s lack of motivation therefore begins with our enthusiastic interest in our children’s interests, even if these are not the interests we would choose.
If you look hard enough, you will find in your child some interest – and a desire to do well. When I talk with unmotivated students, I often find that they are interested in many things (although not in their schoolwork). They may watch the History or Discovery channels, but they will not read a history or science book. Many spend hours searching websites when they should be studying, and even more have become addicted to video and computer games, to Minecraft or Call of Duty.
We may disapprove, but these are their interests. And where there is interest, there is curiosity and a desire to learn, to know more.
Too often, in our understandable desire to help children do better, we neglect this vital aspect of children’s motivation (as my colleagues and I also sometimes do, in our zeal to solve a child’s problems).
Psychologist William Damon, based on extensive interviews with children and young adults, offers this wise advice: “Listen closely for the spark, then fan the flames.”
2) Find the source of their frustration and discouragement.
The solution to a child’s lack of motivation is understanding and encouragement, not criticism. There are times in a child’s life when criticism is necessary and important. But if the problem is discouragement, criticism will not be helpful.
Talking to children about the importance of effort and hard work, however well intentioned and however true, or grounding them for their avoidance of schoolwork, will not help. Children have heard this all before. Telling them that they have to try harder will only make them feel angry and misunderstood.
We need to acknowledge their frustration, discouragement and disappointment. For young children, especially, more than anything else, it may help them to know that we have also been frustrated and discouraged.
Rewards and punishments have some short-term effect on children’s effort. We are all motivated, to some extent, to earn rewards and avoid punishment. But rewards and punishments cannot create interests or long-term goals.
3) Encouragement, encouragement, encouragement.
Acknowledge every increment of effort and improvement, even when a child’s effort falls far short of your goal, and express confidence in your child’s eventual success. This may be the essence of encouragement: We make note of a child’s improvement and his or her progress toward goals, not the mistakes.
Our role model should be Dorothy DeLay, teacher of Itzak Perlman and other great violinists at the Julliard School. (DeLay’s teaching method is described in Carol Dweck’s excellent book, Mindset.) One of DeLay’s students recalled a time when he was working to improve his sound. DeLay listened patiently until he played a passage particularly well. She then commented, “Now that’s a beautiful sound.” She then explained how every note has to have a beautiful beginning, middle and end, leading into the next note. And the student thought, “Wow! If I can do it there, I can do it everywhere.”
4) Focus on their strengths.
Help them develop a different picture of themselves. Their strengths should be in the center of the picture. Their difficulties and frustrations should be in the corner.
In school, we teach children that it is important to do well in all their classes. In life, however, our success depends much more on doing one thing well.
George Gershwin, as a young boy, was incorrigible, truant and hyperactive – until he found music. And, of course, so was Babe Ruth—until (and perhaps after) he found baseball.
Even children with significant learning problems demonstrate areas of competence and qualities of character that should be a source of inner pride and a foundation for their future success. These strengths need to be recognized and supported.
5) Give them time.
Finally, don’t give up. Solving the problem of motivation will take time. Demoralization has developed over time. It will take time for your child to learn to overcome pessimism and self-doubt and to let go of cynical and defiant attitudes. Over time, children become sensitized to disappointments and get stuck in moments of frustration. The more that a child’s demoralization has spread, the more that pessimism and rebellion have become habitual, the more time the child will need.
Damon, W. (2008). The Path to Purpose. New York: The Free Press.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.
Kenneth Barish, Ph.D. is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at Weill-Cornell Medical College. He is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems. Pride and Joy is winner of the 2013 International Book Award (Parenting and Family) and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award (Home Category).
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Kenneth Barish’s website: www.kennethbarish.com