Consider this scenario: You’re the parent of two kids. One child is self-motivated—on top of homework and studying, usually on time, and very organized. The other child is constantly late, often missing important papers and books, and requires constant nagging to study and do homework.
How is it that in the same family, one child may be self-motivated while another is always behind? And how does a parent deal with both kids without comparing them—and expecting the wayward child to operate at the same level as the motivated child? One expert suggests that, painful as it might be, parents should begin by looking in a mirror.
Your Child’s Weak Spots May Be Your Own
“Recognize and admit that your child’s weak spots are within you,” advises Frances Walfish, a California psychotherapist, frequent contributor to national news programs and magazines on parent/child topics, and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building A Better Bond with Your Child.
“Without realizing it,” Walfish says, “your child is tripping off something within you, exposing your own weaknesses. You drive her harder and harder, scolding her, but you’re talking to, and scolding, yourself, the part of you that you don’t recognize.” This unwitting behavior is known as “projection,” Walfish says, “and it’s your self-anger directed toward that [child].”
The remedy, which Walfish says can be difficult to achieve, is to stop during a heated moment and take a good look at the situation.
“Slow down your external response and speed up your internal response,” Walfish says. “To do this, stop and ask yourself questions and make observations while in the moment, such as, ‘How am I feeling right now?’ Then take a good look at your child and ask yourself, ‘How is my child feeling right now?’ You can always think about your response, but you can’t take away what you say.”
“In general,” she adds, “[you can only] motivate a child through positive support. Don’t force, push, or press. If you do, what you’ll face, especially with teens, is resistance. They’ll rebel. And it’s [a difficult pattern] to get out of.”
Unlock the Power Struggle
Motivation is often related to power struggles between a child and his parent, says Ann Dolin, M. Ed, author of Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools, and Solutions to Stress-Free Homework. “Kids think the one thing they can control is how they their handle homework and do on tests,” Dolin says. “So if there’s a power struggle with a parent, a child may not finish his homework, or just do a little and not complete it—or not study [at all].”
How, then, should parents break the pattern of a daily contest of wills—one in which both parent and child typically lose—and help their kids become more self-motivated? And do so without comparing the unmotivated child to her more motivated sibling?
Both experts say the key is for parents to act as supportive coaches, helping both their unmotivated and self-motivated children succeed. To do this, they offer the following tips:
Emphasize the process versus the product. It’s important to have structure in the house, says Dolin, even if kids have different motivation levels. Designate a time that is “homework time” in the house, and make this consistent for all the kids. “It’s got to be the same process for all,” says Dolin, who suggests simply announcing, “Homework time starts at 4 p.m.”
Take the emphasis off grades. It’s tempting for a parent to use rewards to motivate a child, Dolin says, such as promising money for good grades. Instead, Dolin says parents should put an emphasis on what schoolwork their child does every day and how studying and homework time is spent. “The rule of thumb is that a child should spend 10 minutes per grade on homework,” she says. “So a 6th grader should spend 60 minutes per night on homework, while a 2nd grader should spend 20 minutes.”
Set a timer to police progress. Walfish suggests setting a timer for the time allotted to each child for homework. That way, the timer serves as the “bad cop,” not the parent. This simple tool can help children learn to use their time more effectively.
But what if one child finishes early while another is still plowing along? “If the homework is really done,” Dolin says, “have that child do something else as long as it’s academically related, such as reading a school book, working on a monthly project—even cleaning out her backpack” until her homework time is up.
Motivate with free time, not TV time. Most parents have said, “You can watch TV if you do your homework.” It’s easy to think you can jump-start your unmotivated child into action with promised TV time, Dolin says. But she explains that this strategy only motivates a child to rush through doing his homework—the last thing a parent wants. Instead, enact a “no TV until after dinner” policy and, again, make it the same policy for all the kids in the family—the self-motivated and the unmotivated alike.
Instead, entice a reluctant student with the reward of “free time,” which can, in some cases, involve screen time, Dolin says. She explains that new studies from California State University, as described in a recent lecture Dolin attended given by CSU’s Larry Rosen, Ph.D., show that if a parent takes away a teen’s cell phone—or if the teen is otherwise not allowed access to the phone—it increases the teen’s anxiety while doing homework.
Instead, Dolin says, the parent’s goal should be teaching the teen how to use technology productively while staying focused on completing the homework at hand. Dolin advocates Rosen’s suggestion that parents tell teens they’re allowed a one-minute “text break” after doing homework for a specified amount of time—say, 30 minutes. Then it’s back to homework time. “Even though kids think they can multitask,” Dolin says, “the more focused a child is on homework, the higher his GPA.”
Act—and speak—like a supportive coach. “Parents are always saying, ‘Good job!’ and they think that’s self-esteem building,” Walfish says. Instead, she says, it’s vague and not specifically tied to what the child did or how she might actually feel. Instead, Walfish advises parents to say something like, “You must feel so good about yourself when you do (or finish) ____ (fill in the blank).” In these situations, she says parents should describe exactly what the child did and use a “You can do it!” tone of voice.