Motivating Unmotivated Children

Breed confidence with “healthy” praise.

I hear it all the time in my practice, “Little Johnny has so much potential, but he doesn’t try in class, sports, or homework.”

It is a cliche that parents tell their children: “You can be anything you want to be.”  It makes sense, we want to build up our children’s self-esteem.  A first step to achieving anything is believing that you can.  Yet so many children hear these messages and still develop low self-esteem.  What went wrong?

My guess is two things.  First, if parents offer more criticism than praise, then the child may turn off the listening to protect themselves.  That means turning off the ear for criticism and also turning it off for the idea that they can become anything.  As a rule of thumb, there should be a minimum of 4 praises per 1 criticism in any relationship.  Can you honestly say you are there?

Next, and bigger I suspect, is due to the overwhelming burden associated with freedom.  If we are totally free to become what we want, then we also have the huge responsibility to make the right choice.  That means making all of those inevitable mistakes along the way will also result in huge hits to self-esteem.  By the time the kid is in middle school, he may translate “you’ve got so much potential” as “you are failing to live up to your potential” and feel there is nothing he can do about it.  Your best-intended words are only reminding him what a failure he feels like.

What is a parent to do?  First of all, correct that praise to criticism ratio.  In another post, I’ll explain how to do praise and criticism right.  In general, praise should be for effort, not performance or results.  Next, stop sending the message that the kid has so much potential, and instead show her that you love her unconditionally, no matter what she does or how she does it.  (You can still love your child while not liking his behaviors.)

Another factor here is often video games, see my post on this monster.