Q: My kind, creative, mostly happy 10-year-old has a side I struggle to understand: She gives up whenever anything is hard (whether it be music lessons or computer games), and she doesn’t put in more than minimal effort on things she could do a lot better, such as her work at school. She has lived between two homes for many years, and the back and forth is surely a massive strain on her. Her dad and I co-parent well and have fairly consistent rules and expectations at both houses, and we both model a decent work ethic and not giving up on a task because we don’t get it right the first time. Is this normal for her age? Is there more I could do to help her find her own sense of motivation? I don’t want her motivation to be my nagging or, worse, my disappointment.
A: Let me begin by noting all of the good that I saw in your message. Your daughter is kind, creative and mostly happy (this is great). Your daughter is weathering traveling between two homes well (again, great). You and your former spouse co-parent well (two big thumbs-up on that one) and have consistent rules and expectations.
In my estimation, things are looking pretty good. So what do we make of this giving up you keep seeing?
You are asking a crucial question: “Is there more I could do to help her find her own sense of motivation?” Let’s look at motivation and 10-year-old children first.
Humans are motivated by many factors: reward, internal satisfaction, competition, praise, fear. Developmentally, your daughter is not “little” anymore. The days of lollipops and trinkets as motivators are largely over, and she is in a stage in which her internal voice is becoming stronger. Her likes and dislikes, her temperament, her passions will begin to take focus more clearly.
Does this mean she’s lazy, afraid of work or destined to be second-rate when the going gets tough?
When a child feels that the stakes are emotionally high (“If I quit this, Mom will feel disappointed in me”) and that the cost could be her relationship with you, the child will pull away from hard things to avoid the pain of this separation. This is not conscious. I repeat: This is not conscious. This is an emotion that springs from her because all children want to feel close to their parents, and when that is threatened, the reptilian brain jumps in and says, “Whoa! Back away from that piano/homework/video game! You will fail, and Mom will look at you with those sad eyes.” It sounds ridiculous, but even the perception of separation can cause a child to back away from something fearful.
It could be the case (I am guessing) that between the consistent rules and the home switching, she is feeling as if trying hard is simply too threatening. It may not feel as if there is enough room and relaxation to try and fail, and now we have a cycle: She doesn’t try, you push, she digs in, you push harder and poof! Now she quits everything.
So the question is not “How do we motivate this young woman?” The question is “How can we create an environment where it is safe to try and fail?”
If you find talented people who are motivated and happy with themselves, they will often speak of a childhood filled with options, strong support for trial and failure, parents who focused on the effort rather than the outcome, boundaries and joy. Yes, joy.
When it comes to your home, you have the boundaries and expectations set clearly, so let’s add some other ideas:
1. Can you demonstrate trying things and failing? Badly? Can you try something you are afraid of? Maybe with your daughter?
2. Can you focus solely on the effort and growth (even in the smallest increments)? This is especially important when it comes to instrument practice.
3. Can you recognize that nagging only fuels the cycle you are in? And stop nagging immediately?
4. Can you give her room? For instance, who cares if she quits a video game? Seriously. Don’t give equal weight to all activities.
5. Can you get to know her interests and interior world? Ask open-ended questions and be a listener. Not a fixer or a cheerleader; just a listener. You can even ask her whether she feels suffocated by you and your ex. You might be surprised by her answer.
6. Can you let some natural consequences happen? For instance, if she doesn’t practice her instrument, her teacher will know and speak to her about it. Isn’t that the way it should be? And if there is no natural consequence (as in quitting a video game), then let that be okay, too.
7. Is there a possibility that this is how she gets attention from you and your ex? It may not be conscious for her, but try not talking about her motivation or outcomes or anything like that for a couple of weeks. See what happens.
You can’t force motivation. You can only create the conditions in which it can spring forth and then encourage it when you see it.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Sept. 14.