October 20

How to motivate a child who doesn’t care

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Oh, we have those children, don’t we? The child who doesn’t want to do his homework, no matter how much you cajole him.

The child who can’t be bothered to wake up for school.

The child who doesn’t seem to know what’s best for him.

How do you motivate a child, who doesn’t seem to care about anything? Who doesn’t seem passionate about anything?

Advice is cheap. You would want to know who’s giving you the advice before even bothering to read on.

how to motivate a child
You definitely don’t want to just hear me spewing well meaning advice that doesn’t work, do you?

So who am I to advise you?

I’m not a parent. I don’t have children running around me. All I have is experience working with youth as a social worker, and from what I’ve seen my parents do. If you’re looking for research-backed studies about how to motivate children who don’t care, I don’t have it. But if you are looking for methods that have worked for myself, and the parents I work with, read on.

I’ll admit. Working with children who don’t care is frustrating. There are many times when they have had such great replies for me that I’ve thought,

Well, why don’t you be the parent? I think you’ve much better insight than me.

Here’s an example. I was once asking a child why he didn’t want to work harder for school, since he was so smart.

Why work so hard and torture yourself? If I can pass, why work so hard to get A+?

There’s no point anyway.

That’s true. Why would anyone, in their right mind, put in more effort than is required?

I wanted to tear my hair out after hearing him. I didn’t know what to reply.

Maybe that’s you today. You find yourself having lesser and lesser hair each day from all the strands you’re pulling out.

You wonder to yourself,

Why did I even think of having babies? What was going through my mind then?

I’m kidding. Children can be a joy.

For every action you take to motivate your child, promising the latest gadget, the newest game console, or the next vacation, you aren’t sure why it isn’t working.

How do you motivate a child who doesn’t care?

Who is this article for?

  • parents of 12-18 year olds (or children who are beginning to spread their wings and realise the power of those wings)
  • practitioners who work with youths

Principles

Let’s talk about principles. It’s easy to share about 57 ways to motivate your child. But beyond quick hacks, these listicles haven’t worked. Here are the principles I’ve learnt from my journey.

There isn’t a magic fix.

In my practice, there have been many parents who come asking me to “spend more time” with their child. It’s as if I’m the magic genie who can ‘fix’ their child.

I can’t. No one can.

There’s no magic fix for your unmotivated child. What then?

What I mean is this. If you want to motivate your child, it will be a process. You need to invest in that process. There’s no quick fix that promises immediate results. More often than not, things will get worse before it gets better. The problem is that we give up faster than the time it takes to see the results.

Secondly, there’s no magic bullet. There’s no single magic technique or theory or therapist that will suddenly fix your child.

Rather, it’s going to be a combination of actions that will help to motivate your child again.

The basis of motivation is the relationship with your child.

The science of motivation is complex. Researchers have tried studying for years what makes people motivated, and what keeps them motivated. Broadly speaking, there are two types of motivation.

why am I so different from everyone else?
How’s your relationship with your child?

There are the extrinsic factors of motivation. This refers to things that would motivate your child like:

  • going out to play
  • a present for doing well
  • not getting beaten

Then there are the intrinsic factors. Your child is motivated to do something not because of what’s happening outside him, but what’s happening inside him.

He’s motivated because:

  • he might enjoy the work he’s doing
  • he sees the reason for studying
  • he wants to make you, the parent happy
  • he wants to make himself happy

There are many things that bring joy to a child. But for a young child that’s grown up around his parents, and other people, much of what they do is still focused on gaining attention, so that others will praise him.

We see teenagers do that, as they go onto social media. But this time, validation comes from their peers, rather than their parents.

What does this have to do with your relationship with your child?

It is your relationship that forms the bedrock of his motivation to do something. A child might not fully understand what the point of studying is. You might not know yourself! You may have seen how little of what you studied in secondary school ended up being used in your workplace.

But it is your relationship that will help the child to navigate these problems and questions that arise.

Too often, we tell our children,

“Study, because I say so.”

If they trust you, they might do it. If they don’t, they will act out. That’s the difference I’ve seen between healthy parenting, and not so healthy parenting. When I’ve worked with parents who report that their children are difficult, I often see their children accusing them of being ‘liars, stupid parents, parents they hate’ and a host of other negative labels.

Why does this happen?

Because their parents have lost the trust they have with their children.

Let me say this.

Spend quality and quantity time

There is no shortcut. If you’re busy as a parent, and have little time for your child, there is a consequence.

There’s no replacement for time with your child

You choose that consequence. Each time you choose to work, over spending more time with your child, you are making a choice. Whether you know it or not.

I know, this sounds harsh and not very empathetic. But I’ve seen many children hurt because their parents spend little time with them.

Instead, their parents say,

“I need to work to put food on the table, what more do you want me to do?!”

I’ve been working with a youth for some time.

He has zero friends in school. He thinks his friends are weird. He ends up coming straight home after school each day. He’s started to skip school as well.

Each day, he cooks instant noodles for himself. You see, his mum is not usually home.

His mother works two jobs to support the family. As a single mother, it seems that this is something she needs to do. But it’s also a choice she’s making.

And there are costs to this child.

Each time I say goodbye to him, and see him walking home, I wonder what it’s like for him to go home daily to an empty home, with no one but his phone for company.

There’s a cost to your choice.

Treat your child as a human being, not a human doing

Your child can tell if you’re interested in his results, more than who he is as a person. He can smell it from more than a mile away.

Your child can tell if you’re doing something with him, simply because you want him to improve his results. How does he tell?

You stop after some initial positive results. That’s how he knows that it’s not lasting. All he is to you is a series of grades on a result slip.

I remember the time when I grew up in a neighbourhood primary school. I was naughty. Very naughty. During my first week of school as a primary 1 student, I ran out of class to play on the monkey bars whilst everyone else was studying.

A classmate ended up shouting,

Teacher, why John can play on the monkey bars?

Later that evening, I was paraded in front of the school during assembly as an example not to follow. Despite being seemingly unmotivated to study, my mum never withdrew her love. She continued to spend time with me. She provided correction, telling me what I could and couldn’t do. She would scold me.

Your relationship with your child shouldn’t be conditional. Withdrawing your love by intentional ignoring, or by telling your child,

“Mummy is not going to buy you your game if you don’t do well”,

lets the child know that you’re interested in him because of what he can do for you.

When I look back at my mum scolding me, I didn’t fully understand why I still trusted her at that time. But now I know.

I knew that she had the best in mind for me. Not for herself.

Don’t compare your child.

I’ve heard many parents at playgrounds say,

“Look at Ravi! Why can’t you be like him?”

Ravi ends up beaming, whilst the other child ends up dejected.

Whenever parents bring their child to see me, I occasionally catch comparisons during our conversation. They would either compare their child to another sibling, or to another friend.

After a while, the child also learns that he’ll never measure up. There’s always someone better than him.

motivate a child who doesn't care
Your child can feel that she never measures up, especially with all that she hears from you.

This does nothing for the child’s motivation. It reminds him that no matter how hard he works, there will always be someone more motivated. Cleverer, smarter, more disciplined. That someone, makes him feel that his efforts don’t count.

Rather than being celebrated for what he’s bringing to the table, he’s being compared.

Every time.

Ask yourself,

Do you like being compared in your own work?

Don’t you wish your boss would celebrate you for who you are, rather than who you are relative to someone else?

Why do that to your child?

Celebrate his progress each day. In the small moments of victory, such as finishing his schoolwork, tell him that he matters.

Conclusion

5 years ago, I was struggling to find motivation to apply for university. I had done badly at the Alevels, and my dreams of becoming a doctor were crushed. I didn’t know what to study.

In fact, my A Level results had spelt

B

B

A

D

BBAD.

Oh, the irony.

I had given up hope. I had even given up on life.

One evening, I decided I had enough and didn’t want to continue life any longer.

Fortunately, I called a mental health hotline.

They directed me to a GP, who directed me to a mental institution. I needed checking by a psychiatrist before they were willing to let me go home.

My parents were called.

When it was eventually time to go home, it was 2am in the morning. My mum raced ahead to find a taxi home.

My dad walked beside me, and placed his hands around me.

“John, whether you have 5A-s or no A-s,

you’re still my son.”

You’re still my son.

Those words still reverberate, after all those years. Your child may be struggling with motivation today. But as his parent, you’ve a unique place in his life.

Not as a parent to tell him what to do. But as a person to tell him you’re here with him on his journey. And that you love him, unconditionally, motivated, or not.


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