Are You Unintentionally Crippling Your Child's Motivation?

Motivation and how to motivate teens are common topics and complaints for parents. They are also the focus of many teacher discussions, as well. Why? Because we expect children to be motivated without giving them the raw materials to build the muscle. We don't even realize that we deny children the very things they need to spark and develop the motivational center in their brains. And while a child is developing, we don't understand just how critical it is for a child and teen to lead themselves.

Lately, I have been listening to moms frustrated with their children's lack of motivation. They are perplexed about why they must nag their children to do homework or their teens to complete chores or to clean their bedrooms.

Is Velcro stealing your child's opportunity for skill-buildingWhen I ask parents, "Have you taught them how to tie their shoes?" they are taken aback. Often they react somewhat confused and a little defensive, "What do you mean? Anthony is fourteen—of course, he knows how to tie his own shoes!"

It turns out that these parents bought tennis shoes with Velcro for their children because the early learning experience was too exasperating. Too little time and too much frustration. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm a huge proponent of ease and keeping life simple. I'm only using velcro shoes as a metaphor here. As an isolated instance, no big deal. However, this tiny parenting decision to buy velcro tennis shoes may seem harmless but add up repeated parenting short-cuts in our hectic lives over the developmental years, and they are crippling our children's coping skills and motivation. Efficiency may be helpful for a busy schedule, but it can also be a deterrent to a child's growth. 

These small, significant decisions also tell me a lot about motivation for learning and why a child may avoid homework. Velcro is a wonderful invention with many varied uses—but there is very little skill required to Velcro a shoe and even less gratification or dopamine release when accomplished.

Nothing is as it appears at first glance. Learning to tie a shoe is not just about tying a shoe. What may appear to be an easy task for an adult is actually many skills linked together for a child: focus, dexterity, sequential thinking, spatial awareness, a sense of direction, ability to calm frustration, patience, positive self-talk, fine motor control and the desire and motivation to learn the skill. Whew! What might seem at first inconsequential actually contains many building blocks! All new experiences are culminating and integrating prior skills. Without these learning opportunities, the brain gets lazy—and so does the child.

Bored and unmotivated friends on their phones

In a HuffPost article, Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D. has this to say about not allowing our children the frustration required in learning curves:

"By neglecting to frustrate children in the safety and security of home, helicopter parents have made their children unable to deal with frustration, while needing instant and constant gratification. This trend is disruptive to Erickson’s model for emotional development, where he stresses the importance of navigating the stages of autonomy and confidence successfully. The end result of such interference by parents who over-protect their children is leading to a dependent youth unable to cope and unwilling to try."

Although Dr. Gross is referring to the Millennials, it is no less true for all children denied the opportunities to contend with frustration and learn perseverance. Parents need to be okay with the uncomfortable feelings of watching a child struggle. While developing, the more opportunities children get to try on a new skill, practice, persevere through challenges, and be successful—no matter how small—it paves the way for motivation to wax during the teenage years. Every time children engage in something they enjoy and learn while experiencing success, motivation muscles are flexing.

Related reading: Your Brain on Dopamine: the Science of Motivation

Are Parents Unknowingly Robbing Children of Motivation?

Tying shoes for a young child is a lot like life. It may appear complex and overwhelming for a child, especially at first. But it's not—it's only new. With any new skill, we feel clumsy initially and the task can feel difficult. Teaching how to learn and how to think effectively when approaching something new is critically important. How a child or teen feels about their learning experience makes a tremendous difference. Learning experiences are greatly influenced by what we bring to them. If we bring expectations that are too high, hurry, frustration, fear of failure or even anger, these feelings negatively influence the child's ability to learn.Tying shoes is great fine motor skill.
Is a child's stomach in knots of anxiety because of frequent mad dashes out the door for preschool? When learning to drive, is a teen nervous and uptight because they just got yelled at for taking a corner too fast? Is a child being compared to an older brother who's a quick learner as an attempt to motivate, but instead makes the child feel inferior? Or is our response one of encouragement and understanding of an inevitable learning curve?

One secret to learning is playing and interacting with curiosity and joy. Is the child being taught this key?

Approaching a new skill or experience ought to be like a child's buoyant response to a treasure hunt or a teen's anticipation of their favorite band's next concert.

Whether learning to tie their shoes or drive a car (much more nerve-wracking for parents!), it is imperative to provide children and teens with positive learning experiences. One of our valuable roles as parents and teachers is to be a calm reflecting pool where they can see their reflection and connect the dots of cause and effect. The goal is for them to identify their thoughts, perceptions, and feelings as active ingredients of failure and success. Children and teens cannot gain this understanding if they are trying to combat a parent's reactions.

Related reading: "What You Need to Know in Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child."

An encouraging learning environment is vital for motivation
Keys to Build Intrinsic Motivation in Your Children and Teens

What is intrinsic motivation? Simply put, it's motivation that comes from within the person. Motivation is not compelled from outside by external forces, such as a good grade or a parent's praise. There are certain things that capitalize on the motivation center of the brain, especially in developing brains. Here are three simple ways you can help your child build their motivation muscles that will soon become habits to serve them for life!

  • Help your child develop encouraging self-talk. One of the most important things is teaching children how they talk to themselves influences how they feel about themselves and their accomplishments. If a child is constantly criticizing themselves or minimizing their achievements, they are not inducing the reward centers. A simple shift of how they frame a situation or their actions will increase their motivation. Dopamine's vital job is to encourage us to take action. Who wants to take action with judgmental, critical chatter?

  • Teach your child or teen to break down tasks. It's common for children to get overwhelmed with large projects. One of the things that releases dopamine (the reward and pleasure chemical) is completion. Not only is accomplishing small milestones on a big project encouraging, it is motivating!

  • Give children specific and positive feedback that is meaningful to the child or teen. Encouragement from others, especially parents and teachers, increases the likelihood of success in the future. When our feedback is meaningful and the child's actions can be repeated for future success, it builds confidence and self-esteem, which both enhance motivation.

    However, what really jumpstarts a child's motivation centers is what they do internally. A crucial factor in making feedback successful is inquiring how a child feels about their experiences, friendships, projects, or schoolwork. When we get inquisitive and draw their attention to their assessment of themselves, the conversation highlights that we care about how they feel, not just what makes us proud as parents.

    Intentional dialogue also helps children and teens to determine what motivates them as well as identify what is truly important to them. This feedback loop teaches them how to self-correct in the future. It accentuates intrinsic rewards, such as the joy of learning (instead of getting validation for good grades or attention by failing); or a warm feeling of helping a friend (instead of inappropriate power derived from bullying and the reactions of others); or the sense of pride for contributing to family projects, e.g., building a raised garden or a new fence (instead of being grounded for not completing chores).
Wow! Wouldn't it be great if we fulfilled these needs for our children and teens.

For more tips on giving effective feedback, see "How to Give Effective Feedback to Children."

Doing projects together encourages skill-building
An enjoyable, stress-free environment for learning is ideal for the brain to feel safe and therefore learn with ease while maximizing natural abilities. By providing patient and loving support, we not only model unconditional acceptance but also help build healthy self-esteem and bolster emotional intelligence. When we make our children's and teens' experience just as important as learning their ABCs and arithmetic while giving them the skills to lead themselves, no bribe, reward, punishment or prodding will be necessary to motivate them.

Related information: "Visionary Parenting Is the Key to Capable and Happy Children"

If you're struggling to motivate a child or teen or you're dealing with a challenging behavior, reach out to Heartmanity for support. Having a parenting expert to consult with not only gives you encouragement but vital skills that will empower you. And sometimes the smallest keys make the biggest difference.

Yes, I need help parenting!

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer’s mission is to create thriving relationships at home and work. She coaches children, teens, and their parents in her private practice located in Bozeman, Montana. Jennifer is a parenting instructor of Redirecting Children's Behavior and an Instructor Trainer for the International Network for Children and Families. She's been a parent educator for the past twenty years. Jennifer is also the author of "The Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence for Children" and co-author of "Hacking the Teen Brain" courses. She frequents homes and schools as regularly as a behavioral consultant to help with challenging behaviors. Jennifer is married to her beloved husband of 39 years and is the mother of three grown children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting