Motivating Your Child

Motivate (verb): to provide with a motive or motives; incite; impel.

I’d agreed to conduct a few sessions on Fun with English as part of an Integrated Summer Workshop. One day we explored Creative Writing. The next day, a Grade 8 girl’s mother came to meet me.

“I really liked that you made them write something yesterday. My daughter writes quite well. Have you seen what she wrote?”

I told the lady that I hadn’t yet looked at what the children had written.

She continued, “I keep telling her she should write something – if not every day, at least every week. But you know how children are – they don’t listen to their parents. 🙂 I wish you would tell her to write something and show it to you. She enjoys your workshop – I’m sure she’ll be motivated by your telling her, and she’ll write something for you.” She looked hopefully at me.

Many years ago, I was convinced we could motivate our children. Give them enough inducement (enough ‘carrots’) and they would fall in line – with their parents’ wishes, of course. Even with my own child, I would keep trying to ‘motivate’ her to do different things – try skating, solve puzzles, write a journal… The three I mention here were dismal failures. Others had more satisfactory results, but I was beginning to tire of the whole bag of tricks.

It was such a lot of work for me! I had to keep on and on at it. Also, when I’d first start motivating her, it would seem to work. But after a bit, it would take enormous amounts of motivation to get her to make the slightest change.

There had to be a better way, I guessed. So, from being a convinced motivator, I graduated to just flirting with the idea of motivation. Sometimes, I’d just dig my heels in and NOT motivate her. Let’s see what happens, I’d think.

And I found what I’d have realized a long time back if only I’d stopped to think dispassionately about it. (Ah! But that’s the rub – it’s so difficult to be dispassionate about your children. :-)) Nothing happened! Nothing at all – neither good nor bad.

Say I’d been trying to get her to wear a T-shirt she disliked. When she was very young, what seemed to work was, “It’s so nice!” She’d eye it doubtfully, but give in. After a bit, I had to up the ante. “It’ll make me happy if you wear it.” (I know! I’m writing the blog from cold, hard experience! :-)). That didn’t work for too long!

One day, as I was looking through my closet for ‘something to wear’, she handed me a dress that had been hanging there forever. It was appropriate for the occasion, but I didn’t want to wear it. “But you’ve never worn this dress, and it’s been hanging here for months!” she said. Well, years actually, but – er…

I get a direct stare from her. “You should wear it. It’ll look nice on you. It’ll make me happy. I think you’ll look great in it. Think how much money you spent on the dress.” I was handed all my own arguments in one big bundle. I fumbled for a response.

Finally, I resorted to pulling rank. “Listen, I don’t want to wear it, and that’s that.” Obviously, I never again tried to get her to wear the tee (or anything else!) that she disliked.

So: motivation? I don’t know.

At the end of the day, people do what they feel like doing. That explains procrastination as well. You need to work on that report, but you don’t feel like it. You’ll find any number of ‘reasons’ why you couldn’t get to it, and then stress yourself out trying to do a good job and get it in on time.

Why should it be any different for your kids? They are complete human beings (except, with shorter life experiences) in their own right.

Your son draws great cartoons, and he’s doodling stuff all the time. You can appreciate what he draws. You can tell him you’d be willing to let him to take a class in cartooning if he wishes it. That’s about all you can do. Beyond that, it is his call.

Your daughter may be great at gymnastics. She’s so good she could go professional, the teacher at school tells you. You ‘motivate’ her to go to a class. Maybe she’s just not interested! Maybe she’s happy with gymnastics as just an activity.

But you’re so intent on ‘motivating’ her ‘for her own good’ that you keep pushing it at her. Besides, you are a ‘dedicated’ parent, and want to ‘help’ your child fulfill her potential and not ‘waste’ herself (a sentence full of ‘inverted commas’: a life lived inside inverted logic, actually.) You will both feel pressured and unhappy about it. However hard you try to ‘motivate’ her, your effort will end in grief.  

The bottom line is: no one can motivate anyone else. Not as a parent, not as a spouse, not as a friend – it simply ain’t happening. (Think about it: if we could be ‘motivated’ by others, we’d all be fit and super-successful at our jobs! 🙂 🙂 You may be inspired by someone, but motivation is a different ballgame.)

Motivation, the only kind that matters, comes from inside a person. No matter how much you ‘motivate’ him, beyond a point, your son won’t do something he doesn’t want to do. Besides, for how long will you go on motivating him? On the other hand, if he’s motivated, you’ll have to move heaven and earth to deflect him from his chosen path! 🙂

Know, as you try to ‘motivate’ your child, that you are systematically harming your relationship with him.

He will resent your inability to accept his choices – he will resent your inability to accept him. Like everyone else, he wants to be appreciated for who is he now, today – not be treated as a work-in-progress which will be fully appreciated once it is complete.

I told the parent at the workshop what I thought about ‘motivating’ children (or anyone, for that matter). “If her writing is to have any meaning, she must write for herself first – before she writes for anyone else.”

She wasn’t happy with what I’d said, but she saw the point. “But what should I do?”

“Let her be,” I said gently.

What you can do – all you can do – is to encourage your child in whatever he is motivated to do.

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