You know the drill – “Do your homework”, “Clean your room”, “Get ready for school”. At some point, hopefully before they leave home for work or college, you hope that they will not need someone else telling them to get started doing the things they need to do. I have written and spoken extensively about how to support kids as they develop their abilities to manage their time, materials, and emotions, but for now I want to focus on how we can help them want to initiate that this learning themselves. After all – wouldn’t that make it easier on parents and teachers – and them?
For kids to stop battling the structures and supports they are offered, they need to be truly intrinsically motivated. In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink outlines three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction. [See my Facebook page for a great video on his thoughts]
- Autonomy – The desire to be self-directed and have control over one’s own actions.
- Mastery – The desire to make progress and improve
- Purpose – The desire to find meaning and purpose, the desire to feel we are making a contribution to something greater and that we matter.
This all sounds great for an adult, but how does this help a kid feel motivated to do his chemistry homework? Well, let’s break it down.
Kids spend so many of their waking hours being asked to do what others want and expect them to do. Their sense of autonomy extends to what they feel they can control, which for many is not much. (That is what creates much of the defiance). I encourage parents to allow their children to have more leeway and freedom in deciding when, how, and how much effort they are going apply to their academics. Yes, I do realize that often they are not putting in nearly “enough” to reach their potential. And there must be boundaries and safety nets in place. They may not succeed as they could in the short-term, but our parental role is to help prepare them for when we are not witness to when they wake up, do their work, etc. (as in while they are in college and the work world). The pride kids feel when they know they can rely on themselves can only be truly experienced when they are in control.
I hear it all the time: “He has no interest in school – he just wants to play video games” (or baseball, art, music, socialize, etc.). That’s because he has an innate drive for mastery – just not in his academics. At a younger age it may not seem that they are going for mastery, but what they are doing is some very important exploration of their interests, talents, and passions. I understand the frustration – how is this interest going to help him in school. Well, let’s start by not demonizing playing the video game, etc. If this is his passion, then see if perhaps you can see what he gains from it, what he brings to it, and what he can take away from it. And then once you can discover this, help him discover it as well. If he spends hours on a video game with virtual friends, spend some time being curious and admire his talent, his passion, his tenacity, or his patience. This is his ticket – if he has these skills in one area, help him see how he can transfer these skills to other areas of his life when he wants to. “You know what Charlie, when I see how you tackle this game I know you are so good at noticing detail and figuring out complex challenges. What a great skill you have.” And then if you see him struggle in chemistry ask him how he can apply some of those problem-solving skills.
Okay, here’s a tough one, how do we help kids find purpose in an academic subject that is so out of their interest area? Well, hopefully his teacher has done some work in helping her students see the relevance in the subject knowledge for their real lives. But beyond that, kids do need some connection to why learning something now has meaning for them later. If a kid is not motivated to learn based on the material itself, then the other potential motivator is the grade they can earn. The problem is, that unlike money, they can’t do anything with that grade they earned – at least not now. So how to we add purpose to the grade in the present? For some, the motivation of grades to open doors to a potential college dream or future career can be enough. I am a strong believer that we must do more career exploration with kids so they can envision and connect to their future selves. For others, they have a strong motivation for money, material items, or opportunities that you can help tie into their performance. And for the others, your goal may be to help them see that it is not always about the subject, rather about developing their skills as learners – that the challenge is to master how to learn now so that in the future, they will have that ability… just like how they learned the basics in the video game.
Be patient. For now, let them feel your support and admiration of who they are. Help them feel good about their interests, talents, and passions. They will grow!