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“Unmotivated” has got to be one of the top 5 descriptors we hear from parents when telling us about their struggling teen.

It turns out that motivating our kids, and helping them learn self-motivation, is one of the great tasks of parenthood.  We all know that there is a lot riding on our children acquiring as much of this magic dust as possible.

As with so many of the other disciplines and qualities we hope our kids develop, it’s easy as a parent to notice only the reverse of these qualities.  Laziness, dishonesty, or disrespect assaults and insults us.  We can’t miss them.  However, it’s a lot more difficult to notice the quiet and more tentative acts of initiative, honesty, and kindness.  Just because we haven’t noticed great motivation in our kids, doesn’t mean that the seeds aren’t waiting for the right conditions to spring forth.

So how do we encourage motivation in our kids?  Again, as in just about everything else in life, a balanced approach is usually best.  Let me share three examples of how parents haven’t done it right.

First:  I worked with a young man who really enjoyed tennis.  His father was a very successful business man and recognized the fact that his son was motivated around the game.  Dad was thrilled.  He knew that self motivation was a key ingredient to his own success.  The father decided that since his son had some self motivation and natural ability, he would oversee things to ensure that he was spending the time required to become great.  He hired a personal tennis coach, sent him to summer camps, and entered him in tournaments.  Sounds good right?  Well, in this case the father effectively commandeered the boy’s passion and made it his own.  Unfortunately, the tactics backfired and it wasn’t long before the boy despised tennis and wanted nothing to do with it.  This parent was way too “Hands on”.

Second:  I’ve also seen another approach, sometimes used by me honestly.  When you see disturbing signs of apathy or laziness, you wrongfully assume that if you push, you’ll find more of the motivation you are looking for in the child.  So you point out the fact that your son sleeps too late on weekends, is constantly leaving home too late to avoid being tardy at school and that he never pick up his clothes from his bedroom floor without being nagged.  Now, instead of feeling motivated to change those things, our teens resist change and the label “lazy” or “unmotivated” seems to fit more than ever.  This type of parents is too “Hands On” as well.

Third:  This strategy is used by parents who recognize their teen’s passion and work to facilitate it.  As the teen spends more and more time in one area of life, the parent removes any obstacles to running with the dream.  When we are too accommodating of an interest or gift, teens may choose to ignore the less desirable skills of life, i.e. grades, chores, respectful behavior, etc.  In an effort to be supportive, parents inadvertently teach teens that it’s ALL about their interests.  Over time, the teen starts to feel that he has no obligation to things that don’t interest him.  This is a good thing run amok. It’s too ‘Hands Off.”

In watching my own kids I have seen major lacks in motivation, and then surprising feats in discipline.  As you well know, every child is different, has different interests, and gets up for different things.  Your challenge, Mom and Dad, is to help them become aware of what is exciting to them.  As an adult and a student of your child’s gifts, you are best qualified to show them new ways to utilize their energy around that motivator.  You will also have to be the bad guy and remind them that they can’t toss the rest of their life in pursuit of that goal.

To Family Happiness!


Tim Thayne, Ph.D.


Homeward Bound

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