Email: Inspiring kids

Inspiring Kids

Dear Julie,

How do you inspire a child to want to improve, become better and enjoy the challenge along the way?  A couple of my children seem to always choose the easy way, because it’s simply too hard to do something that is a little challenging or because the situation is uncomfortable (i.e. won’t be with others of the same ability because these people are older and not as familiar to them as the regulars).  This occurs not only in academics, but just about any aspect of life… anything that involves “work”, effort or the like.

Your insights would be very meaningful if you have any time to spare.  You are also welcome to use this on the blog if you feel it is appropriate.

Thank you so much.

Dona McGuire

Hi Dona.

It’s a great question and I don’t know that I have a specific answer that addresses all the possible permutations of a question like that. So let’s look at a few principles and see how that goes.

What causes people (kids and adults) to exert effort in any situation?

  • Pride in the achievement
  • Competence
  • Responsibility for the outcome
  • A stake in the project
  • Financial reward
  • Fear of punishment
  • Understanding the purpose in the greater scheme of life
  • Competition
  • Entertainment
  • To get attention

Of course you can think of others, I’m sure. You can also remember times when as a kid you felt disinclined to exert effort (perhaps in keeping your room neat) and then as an adult, you suddenly felt ownership over the space and wanted it to look good since it felt like a reflection on you. Sometimes we resist something until we have enough competence to enjoy it (think of playing an instrument or learning a sport – the learning curve is tedious but once you are beyond “beginner,” it starts to get fun). Sometimes we will do something if it helps another person. Sometimes we exert effort if we realize the project is a part of a larger goal we value.

For kids to commit to excellence and perseverance means that on some level they “buy in.” They see the value. I’ve seen amazing dogged commitment to beating levels on a computer game (where the whole action is dragging and clicking for an hour or more), to mastering a kind of throw with a lacrosse stick, to riding a bike, to sewing a skirt on a sewing machine, to uploading and posting 125 photos to Facebook (with captions and tags). Somehow when kids want something, they do put in the tedious effort to get what they really want.

If they aren’t exerting themselves, the place to go back to is, “Why?” It takes a little investigation on your part, but I think it’s a worthy inquiry. You want to know if they know why they aren’t invested. Can they give meaningful descriptions of their experience? Can they assess their mental framework? This matters because it is the key to overcoming that inertia that settles in. If the task is too hard, that requires a different kind of support than if they say they don’t get the point of working on that particular project. If they give up because they don’t see the value, even after you explain it, then you will want to think of other sources of motivation. Does competing with other kids help? (a class) Would it help to tie a reward to it? (“You finish this and we’ll go get Cokes afterward.”) Is there an entertaining way to get it done? (turn on the iPod while working) If the problem is that they feel out of their context (age bracket, no friends), then look for other ways to get the experience/class. Can private lessons be had? Are there tutors? Does the child want to wait a year or two until older?

The key to all effective learning is caring about the outcome.

The carrot and stick methodology have limited power in homeschool anyway. When in doubt, talk to your kids and brainstorm. Don’t start with the idea that you want to ‘get them’ to think or act differently. See if you can simply ‘get them’ – that is, understand how it feels to them. From there, you can begin to create solutions that take those concerns into account, even if one of the solutions is to just can the experience in this context for now.

The reasons you cited for why your kids don’t want to do something are legitimate. Even adults feel that way (don’t like the social context or don’t feel competent). They choose not to do things that stretch them, too, on that basis. So that means there has to be some attention given to creating a different over-riding motivation.

Does that help?


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6 Responses to “Email: Inspiring kids”

  1. Susan says:

    Dear Julie,

    My husband and I have been puzzling over one of our children and this question for quite some time. Some of your info we have known previously, but you give us more questions for drawing him into the conversation. Thank you for an insightful blog post… again.


  2. Diane says:

    It was in the news today that Eunice (Kennedy) Shriver passed away. She was the founder of Special Olympics, and accomplished many other things. It continues to remind me of the principle Julie says, Live your life before your children. Could you exchange the word influence with inspire?

    “Mark Shriver once said his parents’ actions, not just words, influenced their children.”

    ‘In the course of our upbringing, they stressed the importance of giving back,” he said. But we didn’t sit around having family discussions about it. We learned by what she and my father were doing.’

    “Maria Shriver, who is married to Schwarzenegger; Robert, a city councilman in Santa Monica, Calif.; Timothy, chairman of Special Olympics; Mark, an executive at the charity Save the Children; and Anthony, founder and chairman of Best Buddies International, a volunteer organization for the mentally disabled.”

  3. Julie Bogart says:

    That’s moving. Thanks for sharing Diane. Susan, let us know how it goes with your son. 🙂

  4. Last year, I chose “Adventure” as my word for the year. I tried new things. I said, “Yes!” to things that scared me. I lived a little out of my comfort zone, and the whole year I talked about it.

    I talked about how I let definitions of myself limit me as a child. I ‘wasn’t one of the athletic kids’, or I ‘wasn’t good at drawing’. As an adult, I subtly let fear close my life down, each fear-based choice making the world narrower. I’ve been working against those things for about a decade now. And we talked about that. Sometimes I just gloried in being brave somehow that day while talking at the supper table, other times I explicitly drew the kids into the experience.

    I often wonder how many kids see their parents struggle, strive, undertake new things. From their perspective we just do the dishes, just know math, just drive a car. Do we learn new things? Do we take the harder path? And do we let the kids see?

    Modeling this is one of the most important tasks I have as a parent. I’ve taught myself to be a runner. Learned to draw. Learned cursive alongside my daughter. Begun to study a new language. And I’ve let them see me make mistakes, sweat, struggle.

  5. Dona says:

    Dear Julie and others who have responded,
    Thank you so much for your insights. Very inspiring and I will be trying lots of new things and approaches this year. Lots of good food for thought (and then action!)


  6. I truly agree with this topic! I appreciate that these kind of topics are available for parents. This will really help guide them in bringing up their children properly.