One of the most difficult parts of raising kids is motivating them to do their best work. Adolescents can be externally motivated (like when you take their smartphone away from them until they get their grades up to an acceptable level). You are the source of motivation in that scenario. But it is much better if they are internally motivated—when they want to do their best regardless of what others think.
There are many theories about motivation; they are difficult to prove, because there are so many variables involved. There are some things, however, that are common sense and mostly supported by research. We know that students are more motivated when they have a personal interest in a subject, they like the teacher, they feel like the adults in their life care about them, and their basic needs are taken care of (like food, sleep, and shelter).
What can we do as parents and teachers to encourage self-motivation? What I am going to suggest here is primarily based on my own experience working many years with middle and upper school students, but there is research supporting it.
- Praise your child only when she is working hard and doing her best. Somewhere along the way, we got the idea that children need constant praise in order to raise their self-esteem. When we praise them for work that does not deserve it, they are not motivated to try harder, and it does not raise their self-esteem. It just gives them a sense of entitlement—“I deserve praise no matter what I do.”
- Let your child do his own work even when it is really hard for him to do. If parents rescue their children from all failure, what the child learns is that he is not capable of doing it himself. This completely destroys the motivation to try at all.
- When your child is given the appropriate level of work to do, he is more motivated to give it a try. He should not take an honors level class when the work is really too hard for him. The opposite of this is true, as well. When he is placed in a regular level class but belongs in honors, he will not be motivated because the work is too easy. Interestingly enough, in either situation he will report that he is bored in class (either in a class that’s too hard or in a class that’s too easy).
- Nothing motivates your child as much as success. This relates to the last point because she is more likely to succeed when in the appropriate course. The level of work given to her should be challenging but she should be able to successfully do most of it if she tries hard. She should be offered multiple ways to show what she knows. Some students will make amazing videos; others shine when they get to perform a skit. This success is motivating and makes her want to do better on other types of assignments.
The final point I want to make is that children believe what they hear the adults in their life say. Tell your child that you love him no matter what, and you are so happy to have him in your life. Countless times in my career, I have heard kids say, “No matter how hard I try, it’s never good enough for my parents.” Your words are important and can either motivate or discourage.