As a child therapist, I am often told, “He’s not motivated. All he wants to do is watch television or play video games.” Parents urgently ask, “Why doesn’t he put more effort into his schoolwork? Why doesn’t he care?” Many parents believe that their child is “lazy.”
The answer to these questions is almost always, “Because he is discouraged.” He may also be anxious or angry, and he is stuck in this bad mood. He feels that putting effort into his schoolwork is not “worth it” and it is easier for him to pretend that he doesn’t care.
He may mask his discouragement with defiance or blame others (especially his teachers) for his lack of effort. Often, he will seek relief in activities that require little sustained effort and that offer, instead, some immediate feeling of success.
The problem of “lack of motivation” is the problem of demoralization, whether overt or disguised.
To solve the problem of a child’s lack of motivation, we need to return to first principles: Children, when they are not angry or discouraged, want to do well. They want to feel good about themselves—and about others. They want to earn our praise and approval, and they want us to be proud of them. Children say that they don’t care, but they do care.
Sustained effort is a different matter. Our ability to work hard, to sustain effort at any task, requires a feeling of accomplishment or progress along the way, and some confidence in our eventual success. All constructive activity involves moments of anxiety, frustration, and discouragement. Children who are “not motivated” too readily give in to these feelings; they do not bounce back.
Children often hide their anxiety and discouragement behind defiant and rebellious attitudes. “What is the point of studying history or math anyway, I’m never going to use it.” “Who cares who the King of England was in 1850?” Good teachers—teachers who encourage and inspire children, and then demonstrate the relevance of learning—can help us here. But a demoralized child is unlikely to find any relevance in what we want to teach him. He will then be criticized, repeatedly, for his lack of effort, and he will become more rebellious. And he will look elsewhere for a feeling of acceptance and a feeling of pride.
How often do we understand the problem of our children’s motivation in this way? How often do we see a child’s lack of effort not as a problem of demoralization but as a “behavior” problem? How often do we blame the influence of peers, or television and other media distractions? How often do we become frustrated and angry, and then, in our frustration, tell him that he just has to work harder?
Children are not lazy. They may be frustrated and discouraged, anxious or angry; they may have become disillusioned or defiant, self-critical or pessimistic, and they may lack confidence in their ability. But this is not laziness. The misconception that kids are lazy is one of the most common, and most destructive, misunderstandings of children. It is one of the most important misunderstandings that I (and others) hope to correct.
When you understand your child’s lack of motivation as a problem of demoralization, you will be able to look for the real causes of her lack of enthusiasm and effort, and you will be more likely to find helpful solutions.
Undiagnosed (or under-appreciated) attention and learning disorders are the most common source of discouragement and lack of sustained effort (“motivation”) in children. For these children, doing schoolwork or homework is like running with a sprained ankle—it is possible, although painful—and they will look for ways to avoid or postpone this painful and discouraging task. Or they may run ten steps and then find a reason to stop.
What really motivates children?
Motivation begins with interest. Interest leads to exploration and learning, and to the development of projects. Projects then become ambitions and goals. Like all of us, children want to do what they are “good at.” They want to shine and feel proud. And, again, they want us to be proud of them.
A child’s motivation is also sustained by ideals. Children want to become like, to learn from, and to earn the respect of the people they admire. Too often, we overlook this fundamental aspect of children’s motivation and emotional development. We do not stop often enough, I believe, to consider our idealization in the eyes of our children—how children look to us and look up to us—and how we remain for our children, throughout life, sources of affirmation and emotional support.
Rewards and punishments have some short-term effect on children’s effort. We are all motivated, to some extent, to earn rewards and avoid punishment. But rewards and punishments cannot create interests or goals.
I sometimes think of children’s motivation in the form of equations:
- Motivation = interest + a sense of one’s competence + relevance + ideals
- Motivation = interest + confidence (the anticipation of success) + the anticipation of recognition (praise or appreciation) for our effort
- Motivation = having a goal + feeling that we can achieve it
In my next post, I will offer solutions to this common problem, ways that we can strengthen our children’s motivation and effort.
Copyright Ken Barish, Ph.D.
Ken Barish, Ph.D., is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child's Emotions and Solving Family Problems.