Back to School – How to Motivate Your Teen

While the last couple of posts have talked about creating a home environment that is relaxing and motivating, it’s time to move again around the Wheel of Life to talk about family.  It’s back to school time, and while moms may be excited about it, unfortunately many kids aren’t.  Teens often get labeled as unmotivated, lazy and spoiled, believing the world owes them.  I recently shared a post from a friend’s Facebook page that got a lot of “likes”, even from former students of mine who ARE teenagers.  Ironically, it also garnered a lot of dislikes at the “Parent fail blog”.  Obviously, the kind of “tough love” expressed by the judge in this article is only welcome by those teens who are already motivated.  So how to motivate the rest? Here’s one idea:

Many years of teaching high school students, as well as reading on the science of motivation (Daniel Pink’s Drive is a must-read for any supervisor, manager or teacher, not to mention life coach) have convinced me that what motivates us is finding our dream.  No matter how hard teachers try to make their lessons fun and entertaining, the truth is that learning often requires hard work.  I’ve noticed that the students who are willing to put in the effort have some “buy-in” based on their own goals: they see their education as a means to achieve those goals, or they simply love learning and challenging themselves because they have the confidence to do so.

But what about the students that don’t have a dream, or the confidence to take risks, and learn for learning’s sake?  How do we motivate them?  Finding one’s dream is not an easy task; in fact, for me, it’s been a lifelong journey.  When I was a teen, I was motivated to excel in the classes I enjoyed, either because of the subject matter or because I liked the teacher.  If neither was true, I put in the bare minimum of effort required to keep my parents off my back.  I knew I wanted to go to college, and that I wanted to live in Spain for a year, only because I adored my Spanish teacher, who regaled us daily with romantic stories of España.  Beyond that, I had no clue what I wanted to do.

When I taught senior English, I saw many of my students struggling with the same problem.  One of the units in the course involved writing the college application or scholarship essay.  I started off the unit by playing the Who song, Who Are You (old-school, I know, but they indulged me).  Many students have not stopped to think about who they are and what their passions are.  They feel pressured to make a seemingly never-ending series of high-stakes decisions: college or work?  which college? what major?

I believe the answer lies in helping them find their passion.  Research indicates that intrinsic (self) motivation is far more powerful and effective than extrinsic (outside) motivation.  This means that threats, punishments, or even rewards, will not be nearly effective in motivating teens as helping them to discover that subject, instrument, hobby or career that they can’t resist.  So how do we do this?

The first step is to model what finding your passion looks like.  How do you expect your teen to be passionate about life if you are not passionate about yours?  If you are unhappy with your job or life, you may be unconsciously communicating to your teen that “that’s all there is” – leaving them nothing to hope for.  Talk to your teen about what excites you about the work that you do.  Let your teen see you engaging in hobbies that you love.  Model lifelong learning.  Take risks.  Show them it’s ok to make mistakes, and that failure is only a temporary stepping stone to success.

Help them to find their own passion.  It is almost guaranteed that they will not be yours, and that’s ok.  What you really want for your children is their happiness, not for them to be you, right?  Let them explore their own interests.  Encourage them to play sports, join clubs, take lessons, travel with school groups, etc.  Just let them make their own choices about what to try.  Make your home a rich learning environment by providing books, and other stimulating materials.  Allow room for exploration and discovery.

Thought they may not consciously appreciate it now, can there be any greater gift than helping your teen find their passion?


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