One of the biggest concerns I hear from parents and teachers across the country is, “How do we motivate our children?” As parents, we want our children to be the best they can be. We have high hopes for them. We want them to be inspired for learning, for achievement, and for success in life. But despite our best intentions, many kids are unmotivated. In our efforts to boost their motivation, many of us are pushing our kids too far and too fast, and they’re becoming burned out. How do we learn the difference between pushing our kids toward burnout and genuinely helping them to be motivated? My desire to solve this dilemma led me to write this book.
When I taught creative writing to elementary-age kids, I was struck by their great expectations for the future. Some were interested in gaining fame and fortune as movie stars; others sought adventure and travel, hoping to go around the world and learn other languages. Some desired a career in sports, wanting to be great basketball players like Shaquille O’Neal or to win a gold medal in the Olympics. Some of their dreams were fanciful—wanting to take a ride in a hot-air balloon, see it snow on the Fourth of July, or invent a roller coaster that would go faster than the speed of light.
And many of the children’s hopes were serious:
• “I will stop all drugs!”
• “I will make lots of money and pay all my grandma’s bills.”
• “I will help the homeless.”
The children’s writings also reflected their interests in careers and their goals for what they would like to be when they grew up:
• “I’m going to be a biologist and study snakes.”
• “I’m going to be a doctor and find a cure for cancer.”
• “I’m going to be a writer and publish children’s books.”
• “I’m going to be an astronaut and explore Venus and Mars.”
• “Someday I’m going to be just like my dad!”
Architects, nurses, teachers, scientists, and parents. As I considered all these kids inspired by their dreams, I thought, How can we—parents and teachers—help kids stay motivated to meet the challenges that lie ahead? How can we equip them to realize all of their wonderful plans?
Motivation: What Does It Look Like?
A national television program I watched a long time ago had a huge impact on me. The show was focused on motivating children for school achievement. Four young boys and their moms sat on a stage, ready to be interviewed.
“Why didn’t you make better grades?” the boys were asked.
“I dunno,” answered the sixth grader.
“Why didn’t you do your homework?” queried the host. “Don’t you know how important an education is?”
Their answers were similarly vague—until they were asked, “What’s your favorite subject?”
“Lunch!” they quickly responded. “PE!”
I cringed as the report cards of two of the boys were flashed on the television screen, revealing failing grades. The kids’ faces fell, their humiliation complete.
Then the boys’ frustrated mothers were interviewed.
“What did you do to try to motivate your son to do better?” they were asked.
“Well, I grounded him, took away his bike and after-school playtime, and made him sit and do his homework,” the first mother responded. “But his grades didn’t get any better.”
“What did you do to try to get your son to make better grades?” the second mother was asked.
“I nagged,” she replied. “I threatened bodily harm and I carried out my threats. I took away his dessert.”
“I talked to his teacher and told her to get tough,” another mother added. “I took away his PlayStation and Game Boy.”
An educational consultant came on stage next to offer the distraught mothers some expert advice. “Have a study desk, materials, and quiet during study time,” he counseled. “Make your children do their homework, even if they have to sit there all evening.”
“But I’ve done that!” mother number two protested. “It never worked.”
Although the intentions of those who produced that program were good, I wondered why they hadn’t highlighted all the positive ways children can be motivated for learning and achievement—without threats, without pressure, and without bodily harm!
A Motivated Learner
What is motivation? For me, it’s an inner drive that causes me to do something. My motivation may come from a personal desire (for example, to equip and encourage parents), or it may come from an outside incentive (if I finish the book, I’ll get a check). When you motivate someone, you inspire hope in him. You stimulate him to action or propel him forward.
When we talk about motivated kids, we’re referring to children who have caught a feeling of excitement about learning and accomplishing things. They’re enthusiastic about the task at hand—whether at home or at school. They may be self-starters—students who take the initiative to undertake class assignments without reminders or make their beds and clean their rooms without being asked. Or they might need a little more adult involvement but once prodded tackle a job wholeheartedly. If they hit an obstacle or don’t understand a concept, they seek help. They don’t give up just because a challenge is difficult, but rather have the inner fire to keep going in spite of setbacks. They keep plugging away until the light comes on.
At this point you may be thinking, Who are these kids? I’ve never met them! I hope that after reading this book, you’ll have the tools to help your own children become motivated kids.
According to psychologist Carol Dweck, “Motivation is often more important than initial ability in determining our success.” Obviously, we’re rightly concerned about our kids’ motivation levels. So how can we motivate our children without pressuring them? How can we whet their appetites for knowledge and encourage their desire to understand the world around them? How can we ignite the spark within our children that will propel them to embrace their responsibilities—everything from doing their homework and chores to minding their manners? What can we do to encourage the carpe diem mindset, one that perseveres in spite of obstacles and challenges?
Children are naturally curious and come into the world motivated—eager to learn, touch, explore, question, discover. How do we fan the flame of that innate motivation rather than extinguish it?
As parents, we can provide activities and structure our homes in such a way that our kids develop enthusiasm for doing the right thing. Think about how we, as adults, stay motivated to accomplish the things that need to get done. We all have things we’re excited about and other things we do just because we have to. What keeps us going? Often it’s our relationships that inspire us: We may not love cooking dinner, but we love our family so we not only cook the meal but put some thought into it as well. We may be motivated by a good example, one that was set for us by a mom, dad, or favorite teacher. Some of us are motivated by our own high expectations of ourselves.
Just like adults, children can develop motivation for all the necessary things in life. No matter how they’re wired or what their abilities are, there are many ways we can help our kids get started, build up steam, and go the distance in this marathon of growing up. Throughout the rest of this book, we’ll be looking at ways to help our kids build their inner resources of motivation.
Our Part: Developing Momentum, Boosting Motivation
For most parents, spending time cheering for their kids as they play sports is part of the job description. One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve spent time in the bleachers is how important momentum is to the outcome of a game. Our son’s football coach once told the players how the game of life is much like football: You’ve got to block your fears, tackle your problems, and whenever you get the chance, head for the goal and score all the points you can!
Growing up does have some similarities to football, especially in the area of momentum. When our son Chris was a student, my husband and I attended a University of Oklahoma football game against Texas Christian University. Oklahoma had a huge opening-game crowd and a great new head coach. They were pumped up to win the game.
Unfortunately, in the first few minutes of the game, TCU got a quick field goal off an interception. Soon after, Oklahoma fumbled and TCU scored again. They were hot! Oklahoma kept trying, but a few penalties and a fumble derailed their efforts. TCU kept gaining momentum until they had the upper hand, and they won the game twenty to seven. Fortunately, in the next few years, Oklahoma’s team gained momentum and won the national championship.
What does that football game have to do with your child growing up? Let’s look at a typical school year. In September, your child is at a starting point, just as both teams are at the beginning of a game. Perhaps you have expectations of a great year of learning, and your kid is looking forward to fun and new friends. If an interesting subject sparks your child’s motivation, if the teacher takes an interest in him and a good relationship builds, or if he makes a few good grades right out of the chute, positive momentum for learning grows. But if every task is grueling, if he fails on assignments and tests, or if he consistently doesn’t finish his work for fear it won’t be perfect, then the wind can go out of his sails. When a downward spiral gets going, momentum is lost and can be difficult to recover.
This book is all about building motivation and momentum in your child. In the first section of the book, we’ll look at the building blocks of motivation: the power of relationship, positive role modeling, expectations, and a healthy perspective on grades. In the second section, we’ll cover motivation boosters that bring out the best in your child. In the last part of the book, we’ll tackle motivation busters and how to overcome them.
Motivation, the precious spark within each child, can be nurtured at home—not just in the area of schooling but also for life, church, chores, and responsibilities. So let’s look at all the ways we can kindle, not dampen, the fires of motivation in our children.