Get Off Facebook and Do Something!
How to motivate an inert child.
Posted Monday, May 31, 2010, at 7:00 AM
We've written often for Slate about specific behaviors that parents want to develop or discourage in their children, but there is more to family life than a set of particular behaviors.
Many of the deepest concerns of parents are more general. One of the most common is the worry that their children, especially preadolescents and adolescents, are just not motivated to do anything. The child may sit lumpishly around his room, watch TV, play video games, or fool around at the computer while screened off from the world by permanently implanted ear buds. He doesn't really show much interest in anything or talk to anyone, and texting or Facebooking his life away seems like a pallid substitute. Understandably, parents worry that a child who seems inert now may be on a trajectory to become a full-time slacker in perpetuity.
What can a parent do? How do you get an apparently unmotivated child to try anything, especially when that means pushing uphill against the slope of our culture's technology-assisted passivity?
A parent confronted with this situation will have discovered that sometimes you can't even lead a horse to water, let alone make her drink. If you nag or reprimand your child, or deliver one of the standard parental rants on the subject of motivation, you almost guarantee that she won't go anywhere near the water.
But that doesn't mean you're helpless.
Before we get to nuts and bolts, let's take a moment to rethink the common view of motivation. Old-fashioned psychology tended to place the cause of actions within the individual, labeling her with deep-seated traits: She is lazy, honest, reckless, and so on. People do vary considerably in such characteristics, so this older view has not been replaced so much as refined. We now know much more about how contextual features—factors in the environment, age- and development-related influences—shape such characteristics. For example, researchers have demonstrated how a person's level of honesty can be influenced by what others around her are doing, whether she believes some dishonesty will be detected, whether she just experienced a fair and equitable interaction, and so on.
Think of motivation, then, not as an inherent trait, not as an engine within the child that generates behavior, but rather as a result of an interaction between environment and an individual's temperament (biological characteristics evident at birth) and personality (some people seek novelty more than others; some people are a lot more social or introspective). In any given case, we do not know exactly what causes one child to approach life like a sloth and another like a roadrunner, but it's useful to understand motivation as following, not just preceding, behavior. That gives you some options for your own behavior as a parent, since the research shows that 1) inactivity and other aspects of one's style of approaching life are not fixed and immutable, and 2) home situation and others' actions can have a strong influence on a child's motivation.
Identifying the Problem
First, you need to consider exactly what you're seeing that looks to you like a lack of motivation. Lack of interest or just sitting around doing nothing is the behavioral equivalent of a headache. All by itself, a headache is a fairly nonspecific symptom. It can be something mild and passing, related to an extraneous condition like too much pollen, or a signal of something worse, like a brain tumor. The interpretation of the headache depends on many other factors; so does understanding your child's lack of interest. Here are some factors to consider:
Normal down time. Some down time is not just normal but essential. The lives of many children are highly programmed, leaving no space for a trip to the dentist, let alone an hour of dreamy idleness. So it's good if a child has down time and if you both have hang-out-with-nothing-to-be-accomplished time. Don't let the impulse toward a highly scheduled life demonize periods of seemingly unconstructive, unproductive behavior. Allow for them, and even try to program them into your family's schedule. If you and your child can share the same down time together, all the better. Tell stories, play cards, shoot the breeze, contemplate the heavens.
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.