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Bright Kids Who Are Not Motivated
What's the balance between pushing and supporting?
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Here is a central question many of us struggle with: When a child is struggling to motivate, how can we help them understand that we a) love them exactly as they are, AND b) are here to help them figure out how to have a little bit more purpose?
On the podcast this week, my guest, Dr. Ellen Braaten - prominent psychologist, researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, Executive Director of the Learning Emotional Assessment Program, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and author of many books including, Bright Kids Who Can't Keep Up: Help Your Child Overcome Slow Processing Speed and Succeed in a Fast-Paced World - is helping me unpack motivation. Whether it is worrying that your child has no passions, or trying to force them into activities that you are excited by, we all struggle to find the balance between pushing and supporting our children.
Here are 5 key takeaways from our discussion:
Children can lack motivation regardless of skill or talent.
Motivation has more to do with pleasure and passion than talent, or even skill. It is our drive to do something that matters. Our children can be great mathematicians…who just don’t enjoy math. For many of us, this is a new and foreign concept. Though our children may be talented at something, it does not mean that they want to pursue it. Here is a quote from tennis legend Andre Aggasi from his recent autobiography, Open. “I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have.” Though this is super frustrating to watch from the sidelines (literally), honoring what your child loves, and not what they are good at, is a central key to unlocking their natural motivation.
Sometimes, the things that motivate us are not the things that we're naturally super great at. - Dr. Ellen Braaten
We need to recognize passions and interests that are not academic or achievement based.
When someone says their child isn’t motivated, I often like to ask how that parent defines being motivated, and under what circumstances. Maybe your child loves cooking, loves art, or loves playing with their younger siblings. Recognizing what they are motivated to do, means accepting that it may not be something that is achievement-based or ideal for their resume. Children are naturally motivated around their interests, and if we can lean into those and recognize their potential, we can use that information to help them to find motivation elsewhere. For example, maybe their interest in cooking can lead them to better understand (or tolerate) chemistry projects, or their interest in childcare can lead them to a babysitting business. Notice what makes them tick, and value those pursuits and passions equally.
We need to start to value qualities in kids that aren't academic, and that aren't achievement oriented. For some kids, it's about noticing the things that they do that they seem happy doing. - Dr. Ellen Braaten
Figuring out our child’s strengths may mean letting go of our own fantasies and trying to accurately assess who your child is, in order to help them explore their interests.
Parenting the child you have in front of you, and not the one in your mind, is a hard task for all of us. Seeing our children for who they are, recognizing their strengths (and weaknesses), their passions, hopes and dreams, means that we make space to let ours go. To find a way to make peace with what we imagined, and to be able to see what we have in front of us. This is not only one of the keys to creating meaningful connection and attachment in our relationship, but also to unlocking your child’s natural motivation and interest. By helping them to find what they are passionate about doing, you can help them to find lifelong interest and fulfillment.
When we look at the child that we have, and let them be who they are, we're losing something. We are losing what we wish they would've been, and that's okay. - Dr. Ellen Braaten
Parents can help to ensure the space, skills, and exposure kids need to find their own interests.
As parents, we play an important role in helping our children have enough downtime to pursue their interests, the skills they need to learn to manage those interests, and the exposure to enough types of activities and pursuits that they can think differently, and find new roads. This is a balance we hold carefully - allowing creativity to form in free time, and making sure that they see and experience enough diversity in their schedules. For all of us, working to find balance requires that we connect with our children, communicate openly, and constantly reassess what is working.
Think of motivation as that fire that you've got to support. What does fire need? It needs air, it needs time to breathe, it needs fuel, and it needs exposure. - Dr. Ellen Braaten
Being unmotivated may be an intentional way that children show us that they don’t like, or feel anxious about, the path they are on.
One idea that may seem obvious (but isn’t) is that lots of children will actually work hard to show you how unhappy they are. They are motivated to act unmotivated. It takes work for them to willfully go against what you ask or demand of them, for them to swim against the tide of expectations, or to “drop out” of things they’ve committed to. All of this “lack of motivation,” may actually be communication around what our children need instead. Maybe academics are not where they shine, or a pressure filled athletic setting isn’t what helps them to thrive. Maybe they don’t want to be a division 1 athlete despite their talent, or they won’t be the 4th generation to become a doctor. In understanding their behavior as communication (a nod to good friends Dr. Tina Payne Bryson and Dr. Dan Siegel), you interrupt a perceived lack of motivation as an opening to the discussion of a new and more authentic path.
One way that children tell us that they don’t like the path they are on is to become unmotivated. Being unmotivated can actually reflect their motivation to tell us that they don't like, or are anxious about, the path we’ve set them on. - Dr. Ellen Braaten
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