Have you ever had moments when you’re trying to convince your tween or teenager to do their homework, only to have them hem and haw, drag their feet and dawdle? You then take on one of the follow personas, in hope of trying to motivate them to start doing their work:
- The Nagger – “Excuse me, can you please start doing your homework already? I’ve asked you many times. You said you were going to do it after watching this episode on Youtube. Are you listening to me??”
- The Briber – “Okay, son, if you do your homework, I will get you an iPhone after this. And if you get 90% and above, you can play computer games for the whole day.”
- The Punisher – “You better do your homework. If not, I will take away your hand phone and tell your father when he gets back. Then you will have to answer to him (and possibly the cane).”
- The Yeller – Pretty much the above characters, except you’re talking at your child, not to him.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that there is a time and place for reminding your child to do their work, for rewarding them and for creating proper boundaries. But often times, these personas only come out when we get to the point of exasperation. The strategies above work initially, and then their effect quickly diminishes.
If this is a familiar situation to you, I’m sure you’ve googled and read all about “positive reinforcement”, “using praise/reward instead of criticism/punishment”, and the tons of blogs out there that extol how to raise children to be self-motivated. All of them talk about generating and sustaining motivation in children. But really, how do you go about doing it?
I’d like to propose a strategy that will hopefully set you onto a virtuous cycle of motivation and growth.
Generating Motivation: Two “Irrational” Questions
Persuading someone to do something is not easy, especially if your child has her guard up, dug a trench, and is readying herself for a long drawn battle.
Dr Michael Pantalon, from the Yale School of Medicine, is a leading authority on “motivational interviewing”, which is an effective tool for tapping on a person’s inner drive to motivate them better. His research originally started in the realm of counselling, but how quickly found it’s way across different spheres. He has discovered that not all questions are created equal when it comes to convincing people, and that nagging or asking rational questions (like “Do you want to fail your exams?” or “Do you want to be grounded?”) are ineffective for motivating resistant people.
Instead, using his approach, you would ask your child two questions in this order.
Question 1: “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being ‘not ready at all’ and 10 being ‘totally ready,’ how ready are you to do your homework/study for your exam?”
After your child gives his answer, move to:
Question 2: “Why didn’t you pick a lower number?”
Say whattt? In his book Instant Influence, Dr Pantalon writes that “this is the question that catches everybody off guard.” That question – why not a lower number – is the catalyst. Daniel Pink, in his book To Sell is Human, explains:
“Most people who resist doing or believing something don’t have a binary, off-on, yes-no position. So don’t ask a binary, off-on, yes-no question. If your prospect [in this case your child] has even a faint desire to move, Pantalon says, asking her to locate herself on that 1-to-10 scale can expose an apparent “No” as an actual “Maybe.” The point of the question is not to pick on what number your child gives, but to cause her to explain her own reasons for studying, and to articulating why she wants to behave differently. This reveals her own motivation and increases the chances that she will actually want to do it herself.
..asking her to locate herself on that 1-to-10 scale can expose an apparent “No” as an actual “Maybe.”
But what happens if your child says “I’m a 1”? Uh oh, is that the magic answer that causes the beautiful set-up to fail? The short answer is no. Instead of asking your child why she did not pick a lower number, you should ask her, “What can I do to help you become a ‘2’ instead of a ‘1’?” This would cause her to think about her state and allows her to share her thoughts – it might just be going through a topic with her or helping her with some area that she is not certain about. Either way, it gives her a spark to move forward.
Sustaining Motivation: The Effect of Praise
Much digital ink has been spilt on the importance of a child’s self-confidence and emotional well-being, and we all want to have emotionally healthy children right? So we make sure that we shower our children with praise and tell them that they are smart when they do well, complete a task or learn something new.
I believe that it is important to positively impact children with praise, but it turns out that not all praise is equal. In fact, some can even hold them back.
Carol Dweck, a professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has spent a lifetime researching on the psychology of motivation, personality and development. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she explains that individuals can have two types of mindsets. The first is a fixed mindset, where the individual believes that their ability (and in this case, intelligence) is innate. The second is the growth mindset, who believe that success is based on hard work and perseverance.
So how does this tie in with praise and motivation?
In her research, she sent a team of research assistants to New York fifth-grade classrooms (where students are typically 10-11 years old). They picked children to do a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles easy enough for them to do well in. After completing the test, each child would be either praised for their a) intelligence – “You must be smart at this” or b) effort – “You must have worked really hard.”
The students that were praised on effort chose harder sets of puzzles, responded more positively to more difficult problems and improved better than their peers who were praised on intelligence.
After that, the students were given a series of other tests. And the results were astonishing. The students that were praised on effort chose harder sets of puzzles, responded more positively to more difficult problems and improved better than their peers who were praised on intelligence.
Dweck explains as such, “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
So after your child starts being more motivated, what makes a good praise? I call it the SBC recipe (for those of you in Singapore old enough to watch TV before LED flatscreens came about):
- Sincere – Research has shown that older children are just as suspicious of praise as adults. It’s important to be keep it real and point out what you are proud of your child.
- Balanced – The key to praise is intermittent reinforcement. Like a praise junkie, too much of a good thing can distort a child’s motivation. As busy parents, often we are out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, and when we get home, we ratchet up the praise to let them know that we are there for them. One way to given balanced praise is to praise the “process”, be it focusing on completing a task before heading out to play or helping out with the dishes.
- Credible – Praise must be based on a real thing. Be specific about it. Is it the effort he put into completing the Math homework? Or not giving up after struggling at the start of the race? You might find it hard at first, but once you learn how to regularly put on that lens, you’ll view praise so much differently.
The goal is to help your child move from inertia to growing to be more and more self-motivated. There is no one-time fix, but the beautiful thing is these qualities that are instilled in them – self-motivation and perseverance – have lifelong effects. Keep sowing, parents. It’s going to be great. Cheering you on!