Email: Inspiring kids
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.
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
- Responsibility for the outcome
- A stake in the project
- Financial reward
- Fear of punishment
- Understanding the purpose in the greater scheme of life
- 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?