What motivates a teenager? The answer is pretty easy. Fun stuff. Friends, movies, music, friends, electronic devices and social media, friends, sleeping in, and… friends.
What doesn’t motivate a teenager?
That’s easy too. Anything boring. That would be cleaning up, studying, and practising… boring plus.
How do we motivate our teenagers to do more of the boring stuff?
The most basic level of motivation we can turn to is carrots and sticks. Let’s take a look at the carrot and stick (or reward and punishment) approach to teenage motivation. The fundamentals of quick-fix, carrot and stick, motivation mean you remove privileges when your children don’t do as they’re told, and you give them bonuses when they do. If the kids haven’t done their chores they don’t get their devices. If they have done their chores, they get pocket money (and devices, etc). At a basic theoretical level this might work just fine. But most parents really struggle, every single day, with the practicalities of it.
Most parents have to constantly remind, nag, and cajole their kids. They have to threaten the removal of privileges every 5 minutes. They have to check to make sure that jobs have been done – and done right!
In other words, while in theory the carrot and stick approach sounds simple, in practise it’s a pain in the rear, and it takes daily (or hourly) reminders, threats, and consequences.
First, the promise of a reward is also a promise of a punishment
Implicit in every promise of a privilege is the threat that the privilege or reward can be taken away. When we tell our children to do a chore to receive the gold star on the chore chart, or pocket money, or a wi-fi password, we are implicitly threatening that should they choose not to do the chore, they will be punished. (This is precisely why many of us make the promise, by the way.)
Second, using rewards and punishments is bad for your relationship
Children often perceive that rewards mean approval, and approval means love. Rewarding and punishing our children based on their actions suggests that our love is conditional. Whether this is the case or not, it’s what they perceive. And when children perceive that they are not loved, they tend to make poor choices, have low wellbeing, and struggle in their lives.
Third, it ignores reasons!
When we use rewards and punishments as our central motivational modus operandi, we fail to recognise the reasons why our child may not be motivated. Rewards and punishments are quick-fix gimmicks. We need to work at the root of the issue rather than plastering over it with a quick-fix. Experience teaches us that quick-fixes come undone, and problems re-surface, often worse than at first.
Fourth, motivation is undermined
Promising a goody (or making a threat) removes the focus on the task and puts it on the outcome. Our children are not motivated for the task. They are motivated for the reward, or they are motivated to avoid the punishment. This means that they’ll only be motivated to do as you ask while ever the promise exists that they’ll be punished for not doing it, or rewarded for doing it.
Additionally, they’ll put forward minimal effort to get the goody. They’re not motivated to tidy their room or practise. They’re motivated to get the $10 or the treat. So they’ll put in the smallest amount of effort possible. Over time, motivation becomes even more reduced which means the rewards have to increase.
So what do you do instead?
The bad news is this: It’s a slow process, like much of relationship building. So you can go for the quick fix, or you can try to instil motivation within your child, and that’s a process, developed through conversations, questions, and a great example.
Let’s look at four common areas of concern and I’ll make some suggestions
Study is boring. Ask any teenager and they’ll tell you. You can promise them a goody if they study. Or you can try something different.
Have them look at the big picture. Ask them “what do you want to be/do/have?”
Once they’ve got a vision then you’re on your way. The maths assignment may not relate to being a vet, but the maths result will impact on the university admission score. So it’s worth working for. The biology exam may be useless for your daughter who wants to be a pilot, but it will affect her GPA so it’s worth the effort.
If your teen doesn’t have academic goals, find out what motivates them. Encourage them to do volunteer work at the race track or the mechanic shed, or the horse school, or the music store. Our kids have strengths. Guide them to those opportunities and they’ll be motivated.
Ever wondered how they do not see the mess, even when they’re standing in it?
For most teens, cleanliness is simply not important to them. It doesn’t mean they don’t have to clean up. So have a conversation. Couch it in terms of your values and their responsibility. Let them know that you’re paying for them to live in your home and while you don’t expect perfection, you do expect a minimum standard. Discuss, together, what that minimum standard is, and how you can achieve it. This will definitely be an ongoing issue for many of us, but if we set the expectations clearly and early, we can continue to work with our children to achieve those outcomes. There may never be intrinsic motivation here, but there can be a sense of contribution over entitlement. Your conversation and perspective taking can promote that.
Remember, as well, the power of appreciation. When the children have done as they were asked, let them know you’re grateful. Point out what you see and how it makes you feel. This is highly motivating.
Even kids who aren’t into athletic activity usually enjoy exercise. It’s a motivating thing to do. You’ve just got to find their strengths. Some people only exercise when it’s social, so team sports may work well. Some people just need to be measured so they can track progress (via distance, time, heart-rate, weight, etc). Measure progress and as things improve, the success will be motivating.
If we want our children to be self-motivated, and to be positive about practise, then they have to choose it. This may mean letting go of your agenda. You might find it will work best if you let your child know they can choose to play whatever instrument they wish, and play whatever music they wish (so long as the teacher is willing to work with them on it), so long as they practise the instrument appropriately. Invite their input as to when they’ll practise, how much they’ll practise, and how they’ll do so. The more input they have, the higher the likelihood that they’ll stick with it.
Ultimately, much of the challenge in motivating our teenagers becomes what I typically call “The Dance”. We take a step to the left, a step back, and then forward. It’s not easy. There are no silver bullets and magic fixes. But the research is clear: the more we can support our children’s autonomy, and the less we rely on our power (via carrots and sticks) to make them do what we want, the better the long term outcomes will be.