Maintaining Focus

The eight dos (and doníts) to keep your child motivated.

Six-year-old Rebecca Kealey begged her parents for ballet lessons, pestering them day and night until they gave in. But after Rebecca’s first three lessons, she flatly refused to return to class.

Rebecca’s friend Kara signed up at the same time. However, Kara arrived early for each lesson, practiced daily and ended up at a prestigious dance academy.

What makes some children stay motivated while others drift from project to project, never fully committing to any one pursuit? Is there anything you, as a parent, can do to help your children stay focused and motivated?

Motivational psychologists have the answer, and it’s a resounding “yes!” Recent research shows there are many ways you can help your children succeed in school, sports and extracurricular activities. Below are eight simple steps to get you started.

  1. DO praise the process. Ground-breaking research by motivational psychologists reveals that children who see abilities as changeable are more likely to attempt new things as well as stick with activities longer than children who believe talents are fixed. This means that praising your child’s efforts, rather than attributing a concrete characteristic, such as intelligence, to a skill is a great way to motivate a child. Telling your child “You’re a good hockey player” sends the message that there are only two fixed options: being good or bad. On the other hand, saying “That was a great goal. All that practice you did on your wrist shot is paying off,” praises your child’s effort and improvement. It also helps him realize that when things go wrong, perseverance is the key to success.
  2. DON’T re-reward. Getting the winning goal in a soccer game or the highest mark on a class project is rewarding in itself. There is no need to pile an extra gift on top of it. In fact, studies show re-rewarding can be discouraging to your child, as it generates confusion about what the goal of the hard work actually was. Rather, ask your child questions about how he feels and what parts of the project or game he enjoyed the most. Also, tell your child that you noticed how hard he worked to succeed.
  3. DO help your child to think constructively. Constructive thinkers take the “f” word, failure, out of their vocabulary and replace it with a much better one: feedback. Help your child see that setbacks are simply feedback. This allows your child to focus attention on changing tactics or trying a new approach rather than giving up. For example, if your child is upset about a poor grade, an encouraging comment is “This just means we need to find a different approach to studying. Do you think that using flashcards or making diagrams would help you better prepare for your next test?” There are always new paths to try on the road to success.
  4. DO let children see you stumble and recover. Children learn a great deal about the world by watching their parents. If you want your child to stick to something when the going gets tough, let him see you rise above a setback. Whether it’s being passed up for a promotion or recovering from a junk-food binge, showing your kids it’s possible to deal with setbacks without getting discouraged supports them in doing the same in the future.
  5. DO get involved but DON’T take over. A new hobby is a fragile thing. Sometimes in your parental excitement, you may end up unintentionally taking over. Meaning, if your daughter likes to spend hours drawing and you’re tempted to sign her up for art lessons in order to develop her abilities, restrain yourself. Art may be just a phase— or it could be a lifelong passion. Either way, your daughter needs time on her own to decide which it is. You can always let her know that art lessons are an option if she wishes to take them. But forcing her to take art lessons too soon may turn off her interest for good.
  6. DO tell stories. Every child loves a good story, especially one about his hero. While your child may look up to David Beckham, Tiger Woods or J. K. Rowling, he may not realize the many hours, days and years of work it took for his hero to make it to the top. If your child understands that hard work, much more than innate talent, leads to success, he will find it easier to stay motivated even when he doesn’t seem to be making progress.
  7. DON’T compare. It’s damaging to compare your child, either favorably or unfavorably, to siblings, friends or acquaintances. Each child has his unique skills, talents and personality traits, and should strive to do one’s best, not someone else’s. In fact, the newest research in motivation shows that being competitive actually interferes with achievement and that being overly competitive can lead to a lower grade point average, lower future annual income and lower productivity.
  8. DO give pep talks. When your child gets discouraged, remind him of times in the past when he overcame similar difficulties. It helps to remind your child that he struggled before but succeeded. For instance, if you say “I know you’re finding fractions challenging now, but remember when you felt the same way about multiplication? Now, multiplication is so easy for you,” you remind your child to stay motivated when he doubts himself.

The extra bonus of helping your child stay motivated is that the more often your child perseveres, the more he builds his confidence and opens himself up to new opportunities. Because children are curious, excited and energetic, it is normal for them to scatter their energy in many directions. When you encourage your children through the good times while supporting them through the difficult times, you enable them to build bridges that lead to a successful future filled with motivation.