Challenges of Motivating Children

Challenges of Motivating Children

Motivating a child who is not intrinsically motivated can be mind-boggling._We want the best for our children and imagine that they want to be successful too._Often parents are faced with the dilemma of having extremely bright or talented children who are not the least bit interested in achieving their potential.

In my practice, one of the most difficult challenges I see parents struggling with is how to cope with lack of motivation from their child.  Frustrated parents are frequently discouraged that their gifted or capable child has little interest in school or pursuing a talent they possess such as soccer or performing arts.  The frustration and disappointment that parents express often turns their homes into a battleground.  Parents will take away privileges, hire experts, tutors and force their children onto competitive teams.  When no one can tolerate the fighting in the home or the barrier between parent and child any longer, a therapist is often consulted. Struggles around child motivation is one of the most challenging issues to work through in therapy.

As a parent, I understand this disappointment and inability to understand why a gifted or talented child cares so little about achieving their potential.  Recently, I had to come to terms with the fact that my son chose not to join the freshman football team.  I've enjoyed watching him play and enjoy rec sports for years; he is an exceptional athlete, in particular he excelled at flag football.  For three years, he had a personal trainer once a week for speed and agility training.  It had really paid off-he was confident, unbelievably fast and in great physical shape.  My son had let me know on multiple occasions that he was uninterested in high school football but I was determined to convince him otherwise.

As the summer grew near, his trainer finally stated what I needed to hear.  He pointed out that my son loved to play sports recreationally, but when things became too competitive, it just wasn't fun for him anymore. Being competitive wasn't fun?!  Surely he was not talking about my son. It took a few days to digest, but it forced me to step back and really think about who my son is and what he values.  He values friendship, kindness, fairness, and sees the good in everyone.  His greatest asset is his ability to make friends with anyone and see the strengths of others.  These are amazing qualities that don't exactly fit with a competitive nature.

I thought about my reasons for wanting him to pursue football.  One, he was an amazing player and it was always great to hear "how fast he was" or "how he always gives 150%."  I loved watching his recreational sporting events over the last 8 years; it was the highlight of my week.  Did I mention that I took football stats for four years while in my hometown? In a small town, sports were the highlight of the week.  I was competitive academically, in sports and in student government.  When his trainer observed that he just wasn't competitive, I was stunned.  How could this be?  

On a closer look at my son and my desire to see him play football, I began to let go of "the dream"-my dream.  It was true, it was what I wanted for him, not what he wanted.  I could have forced him, reminding him of his promise to me, threatening to take away his beloved computer or game system. But, my experience as a therapist, reminded me of the losing battle that would come.  He would be miserable and resentful, likely pulling away or becoming hostile.  The list of negative outcomes from forcing him to achieve a goal he did not want for himself was endless.  

I have seen families struggling painfully over this same issue many times.  As parents, we want to see our children achieve goals by utilizing their talents.  Frequently these goals are not what our children want for themselves.  By forcing our children to be competitive, a top student or to join clubs based on what we believe is best for them, we inevitably do more harm than anything.  The battle generally ends by junior or senior year, and no one wins.  Barriers are established, resentments and angry words are exchanged, and damage to a once healthy relationship needs repairing.  

I am not suggesting that we never push our kids to be successful, responsible or to participate in life.  When it comes to our dreams for our children and our disappointments about what they are or are not doing, we need to ask if it is for ourselves or our child.  Some questions to ask oneself might be:

1)  Am I looking at what is important to my child and what he values?
2)  Is there some part of my past that I hope to recreate or correct?
3)  What is the downside of letting my child choose?  What is the gain?
4)  Is my child unmotivated in all areas of his life, or just this one aspect?  What is important to him?  
5)  How can I support my child in achieving the goals important to him?
6)  Do I take the time to ask what he sees in his future and ask how I can support him?
7) Is my child truly unmotivated or using the unmotivated card for control?

Allowing children to select their own interests may feel like giving in or letting your child be in control.  It is especially difficult when they are not interested in the areas parents observe as their strengths. Sports and grades are a few years in your child's life: the relationship you build and memories created in the early years last a lifetime. 
Maybe the most important question to ask ourselves is "How do I want to be remembered?" 

Our children are unique individuals with their own hopes and dreams.  Personal success cannot be about what we want for our child and we cannot force others to want or value what we want.  It is essential to find out what our children want for themselves and do our best to support them with their personal goals.  Find out what motivates your child by observing, listening and asking.  Only then will you know if your child is unmotivated in general, or unmotivated because they are not interested in our dreams or agendas for them.

I should mention that my son is running cross country, has many friends and is thoroughly enjoying his freshman year in high school.  The only "what if" I ponder is, "what if I had forced him to be someone he was not at such a vulnerable time in his life?  How would our relationship be right now, and how different might his experience in school be?"



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