When music teacher Monica Hepburn noticed a few weeks ago that her students were progressing slower than expected — and that some were doing the bare minimum — she asked them to rate their effort on a scale of one to 10 and to think about whether they were on track to reach their goals. “Everyone wanted to get a trophy at the county music festival,” said Hepburn, who works at North Bethesda Middle School in Maryland, “but they didn’t realize they needed to work hard and practice.” As one eighth-grade boy told her: “I don’t think we know how to get there.”
Children will avoid expending energy on tasks for all sorts of reasons, whether they think they’re boring, irrelevant or frustrating, or they want to protect their ego or feel pressure to perform. Although it can be easy to engage in a battle of wills, here are seven more productive ways that caregivers can help children overcome their own resistance and accomplish hard things.
Focus on autonomy, meaning and progress
When people have autonomy, believe their work has meaning, and feel as if they’re making progress, they’re more likely to have a positive inner work life, said Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.” “I’m pretty confident the same things apply to parenting,” Amabile said. “I was talking about this with my granddaughter, Autumn, who is 10, and she said, ‘It’s good when adults give kids choices,’ like her parents do with her.” Autumn pointed out that she wanted to play cello because her mother learned to play the instrument as a child and still has fun playing today, and it was her choice.
Similarly, you can help your child find meaning in tasks. If they can’t see why doing their math homework matters, you might say, “ ‘The more practice you get, the more your brain will be able to do this stuff automatically,’ ” Amabile said.
You also can fuel children’s motivation by noticing their progress, but be sure to set goals that are “measurable, observable, specific and broken down,” said psychologist Anahi Collado, an assistant research professor at the University of Kansas. You might point out, for instance, that they can hit a baseball with greater ease than last season or that they can play a song they couldn’t a few months ago. If your child is not doing any homework at all, help them get started by putting their name on the page or tackling one math problem. “People can have enormously positive responses to what seems like trivial progress,” Amabile said.
Get a ‘battle buddy,’ and reduce pressure
If something feels too risky to your children, suggest they partner with a friend. They can “try out for a team together or go to the first ballet or judo lesson together,” said Nate Zinsser, director of the Performance Psychology Program at the U.S. Military Academy and author of “The Confident Mind: A Battle-Tested Guide to Unshakable Performance.” “In the Army, they call it the battle buddy. It’s the smallest team: the team of two.” If the resistance relates to schoolwork, they can get a “study buddy.”
Reduce the pressure however you can. “That can free your child from the anxiety that comes from thinking they’re performing for you,” said Ken Ginsburg, an adolescent medicine specialist and program director at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication. “We must never motivate them with one of the most ominous words a [child or teen] can hear, the D word: ‘You are a disappointment to me.’ They must see that we love them in all of their unevenness.”
Focus on joy, and leverage imagination
Prioritize joy and progress over achievement and ability, Zinsser said. “Why does a kid play baseball in the first place? It’s fun to swing the bat and hit the ball and run around the bases,” he says. “They won’t have good success in winning the game unless [they] enjoy building the skills, and that’s building on the broader joy of playing in the first place.”
Remind them that everyone has to start somewhere, especially if they’re opting out of a risk because they don’t think they stack up to their peers. “We give a lot of attention to precocious young athletes whose talent emerges at an early age, but we don’t tend to acknowledge athletes who didn’t appear to be tremendously talented at 10, 14 or 16 but were persistent, improved dramatically and became dominant performers,” Zinsser said. “That’s true for everything.”
If your child is self-defeatist, leverage their imagination. “We encourage kids to be logical, logical, logical all the time, and that backfires when they try something, it doesn’t work, and they think that means it won’t work the next time,” Zinsser said. “Encourage them to fantasize about writing the essay or making the baseball team.”
Work with them, not on them
Understand your child’s ambivalence, said Ned Johnson, president of PrepMatters and co-author of “What Do You Say?” “A kid facing an assignment likely knows that these skills may matter later this month on a test, or there will be blowback from [their] teacher if [they] don’t do it, but the challenge is they also know all the reasons why they don’t want to do it. They may find it dull or difficult, dislike the teacher or think, ‘I don’t want to give in to my parents.’”
Stay calm, try to understand, listen and explore their options, Johnson said. “You might say, ‘It makes sense to me that you want to put your efforts elsewhere, and I can also see some reasons why it might be worth your trying to do this work. If you decide to do it, I’m happy to help you in any way that I can.’ ”
When his daughter Katie, 17, was upset about a Latin assignment, for instance, he validated her frustration before offering help. “It changes the energy when you take their side of things,” he said. “They think you’re working with them, not on them.”
Tie efforts to values and goals
“Connect them to why they’re doing the thing rather than the immediate consequences,” Collado said. In other words, ask them why doing an assignment is important for them. If, for instance, they’re unmotivated because they don’t like the teacher, she will ask: “How important is this teacher going to be in your life in five or 10 years?”
When children are upset, they can believe that the uncomfortable feeling will never pass. “The present can feel so threatening, we forget there’s a future,” Collado said. She will ask them to think about how they have felt after doing a very hard task in the past.
It’s fine for them to take breaks as needed, but not to avoid a task entirely. “If they don’t do it, they’ll experience relief, but it will be the wrong kind of relief,” Collado said. Explain to them how anything they avoid that’s important “will come back and give you more stress, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘I knew I was going to get a bad grade.’ ”
Model positivity and proactive behavior
Let your child see you doing things you don’t want to do, said psychologist Mary Alvord, founder and president of Resilience Across Borders, a nonprofit that aims to help children build resilience. “They’re not going to love every teacher, subject or activity, but if they’re zooming in on the negative, ask: ‘What are some things that are positive or just okay?’ ”
Alvord was part of a group of researchers who found that, when children build resilience skills and develop a sense of self-mastery, it has a “cascading positive impact” on their academic motivation and study skills. “We know if you feel more empowered in your own ability to do things and solve problems, that will strengthen and fortify other areas,” she said.
Simply getting started can be a powerful strategy. “There’s this notion that we need to feel really positive and motivated to get started, but it’s often getting started that makes you feel good, positive and motivated,” said Brad Stulberg, an executive coach and author of “The Practice of Groundedness.”
If your child doesn’t want to go for a bicycle ride, for instance, try saying: “ ‘Let’s bike for 10 minutes, and if after 10 to 15 minutes you want to stop, we can stop,’ ” he said. “Once your brain realizes, ‘Oh, we’re doing this,’ you get a release of neurochemicals — particularly dopamine, the neurochemical of motivation — and that little victory of just getting started can keep you going.”
Forecast consequences, but don’t make choices for them
You might say, “ ‘I understand you’re having trouble with geometry and the teacher isn’t your favorite, but you have to take geometry to graduate, and the less you fight against it, the easier it will be,’ ” said Alan Stein Jr., a former basketball performance coach and co-author of “The Sideline: A Survival Guide for Youth Sports Parents.” “Suffering comes from the resistance, not from the thing itself.”
Stein will help his children get clarity on their options, but he won’t force them to do anything. “I’ll say: ‘It’s okay if you don’t like doing math homework, but if you fail math, you can’t play basketball. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t enjoy in order to do things you love.’ ”
Phyllis L. Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor, is the author of “Middle School Matters,” the school counselor at Sheridan School and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at phyllisfagell.com.