For a lot of us motivating our teenagers to do anything they don’t want to do is mission impossible. It’s almost as if a switch gets flipped and they’re no longer invested or interested in doing the things they don’t feel like doing whether that be homework or cleaning their room, or participating in family activities. We try encouraging, cajoling, reasoning and even threatening to get them to act (particularly when it comes to academics), but none of it does a darn bit of good.
Because we’re afraid if our kid doesn’t get the grades, or score well on exams, or get into the “right” college they’re sabotaging their future success, academic performance becomes a big bone of contention. If we could only motivate them to motivate themselves —to adopt our “solution” to the problem— or motivate them by threatening to take away privileges, we could manage our own anxiety about the consequences of them falling short.
Truth is, by this age, teens are wrestling with ambivalence— not only about academic performance but about a lot of things. Because they’re starting to form their own opinions about how they want to live their lives, they’ve got one foot in adulthood and the other still in childhood. Dennis Bumgarner, author of “Motivating Your Intelligent But Unmotivated Teenager”, explains that to a teen, “… enhanced academic performance…comes at a cost (more time spent studying boring material, less time for fun).” In their minds, the cost often outweighs the potential benefit. Part of them knows they should study, but the part that doesn’t want to often wins out.
Bumgarner says we’re making the wrong assumptions about how motivation works. We think it’s like starting a car and if we could just convince our teen to “’turn the key” the problem would be fixed. He says, “When you ‘try to get it into’ the head of your teenager through incessant lecturing, or when you use punishments to attempt to trigger the motivational button inside him” your efforts fail. It’s because motivation is not an inherent characteristic. There is no internal button that turns it on and off. Performance precedes motivation. It is in the doing of the act that we discover the motivation.
Think of intrinsic motivation as an equation: INTRINSIC MOTIVATION = SELF-INTEREST + OWNERSHIP. Teens want and need to take charge of what matters to them, to be the ones who decide to get it done, and to do it for their sake, not for anyone else’s.
Motivation is also fundamentally about relationship. As Bumgarner puts it, if we become “a cooperative partner rather than an authoritative adversary” we’re starting in a much better place. What if we helped our kids find their own motivation rather than prod them with ours? What if we initiated conversations about what’s truly meaningful to them, instead of issuing decrees, threats, and demands?
If I were going to boil this motivational relationship approach down to a simple list, it would this one from the ChildMind Institute about communicating with your teen:
It’s like that old adage about teaching a man to fish: by teaching our young adults to discover their own source of motivation — their intrinsic desire— we help them learn to ‘feed’ themselves for a lifetime.
Interested in reading more of Dennis Bumgarner’s book? Here’s the link: Motivating Your Intelligent But Unmotivated Teenager