How to motivate an inert child.

Snapshots of life at home.
May 31 2010 7:00 AM

Get Off Facebook and Do Something!

How to motivate an inert child.

(Continued from Page 3)

A body of research has elaborated and refined the effect of environmental cues on behavior. We're not aware of many of the things that influence our decisions, interests, and actions. Our minds are processing information all of the time, often below the level of awareness. We can see the brain lighting up in brain imagery scans, but when the researchers ask the subject what just happened, he will say, "Nothing." We also know that if we present some cue too quickly for a person to notice, it can still influence what she does, or a decision she makes, even though she could not tell you what the cue was. For example, a faint smell of cleaning liquids makes people straighten up their desks a little bit more than usual. When asked why they did it, they do not report on the smell, or they give a really good reason that has nothing to do with the smell.

In terms of motivating a child, it's useful to leave some novel and engaging things around the house where your child can come upon them in the course of daily life: books, a magazine or two, or a keyboard plugged in and ready to play. They should be things that don't require a lot of effort to fool around with (as opposed to, say, clay or paints) and can be casually picked up for a low-stakes initial look. Such casual opportunities to take an interest can exert a significant effect, but it's important to let your child connect with these engaging things on her own. Think of her just taking a brief peek at a magazine, a light connection. If you burst into the room at that point and exclaim, "Did you see the pictures of Wyoming? Weren't they gorgeous? I've booked tickets for us to go there this weekend," you're very likely to kill the budding interest. Instead, let the child find her own way to engagement; use the power of modeling to show her how: Sit down at the keyboard yourself from time to time, tinker and play a bit, give your child a behavior to imitate. (And, as we said before, you'll also have to draw the line on TV, video games, and other such distractions.)

Advertisement

Peers. Making your child's peers welcome in your house is good policy. For many children and families, the home is a place to sleep and to grab meals and not much more. But having the home open to peers makes it more central to family life and gives it a chance to exert a stronger continuing influence on a child. Also, as a child reaches adolescence, it's normal for him to draw a line separating you from his peers and whatever they approve of. Bringing more of your child's world into your home is a way to undraw that line and to monitor and protect him without babying him. It lowers his chances of going off course as peer influences pull at him and foster risky behavior.

Also, when you're choosing an outside-the-house activity, let the child select a friend to go with you. This might be one of the regular activities we mentioned under the heading of modeling—a concert, a movie, or some competence-building activity during which interest, knowledge, and skill can accumulate. Take your child, let her invite a friend, and let them both see that you enjoy the activity yourself. Have a little lunch or snack; make an excursion of it. As your child grows toward adolescence and her peers become more important to her, you can recognize and integrate that. At some point, the need for you to model an interest will fade away as the kids develop their own strong preferences and start picking the concerts—and you may have to suffer through some teenybopper extravaganzas that you'll have to chalk up to parental sacrifice. But the larger principle remains the same. By making a routine of accepting and integrating peers in family activities, you've taken steps to keep your child close to you and build your relationship while also letting her choose to be with her friends, and you've done it in a way that doesn't set up a conflict between the attraction of peers and your desire to cultivate your child's interests and motivation.

Here's a list of further resources on children and motivation.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Alan E. Kazdin, who was president of the American Psychological Association in 2008, is John M. Musser professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

There Are New Abuse Allegations Against Adrian Peterson

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

John Oliver Pleads for Scotland to Stay With the U.K.

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Jurisprudence

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police

The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 1:51 PM Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 15 2014 4:38 PM What Is Straight Ice Cream?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 15 2014 4:49 PM Cheetah Robot Is Now Wireless and Gallivanting on MIT’s Campus
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 15 2014 11:00 AM The Comet and the Cosmic Beehive
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.