Motivation is the timeless parenting question. How can I get my kids to do what they’re supposed to do? There are at least three options.
The first is force. Using threats and power, parents can often get their children to do the things they want them to do. Of course the time comes when the child is more powerful than the parent or when the parent is not present. Then the tables turn. No influence can or ought to be maintained by power alone. Power is the operating principle for Satan but not for God.
Manipulation is a second way to motivate. We can beg, bribe, cajole, and play emotional games. Such an approach requires remarkable amounts of energy and is not reliable. It also generates unfocused guilt in children.
There is a better way to motivate. That better way involves filling a child with peace and purpose. There are three keys to effective motivation.
- Love motivates. The people who make lasting and positive differences in our lives are generally those who love us. Rhea Bailey, my fifth-grade teacher, was just such a person for me. She saw something in this goofy kid that was worth encouraging. Her specific and warm encouragement are still blessing my life decades later.Urie Bronfenbrenner, a noted family scholar, observed that “every child should spend a substantial amount of time with someone who is crazy about him or her.” Not only is love good medicine for humans, it also has catalytic properties; all other efforts to influence, guide, or discipline a child are more effective in the hands of a person who has a loving relationship with that child.
- Knowledge motivates. Knowledge is an important part of motivation. But not all knowledge is created equal. Certain kinds of knowledge make a big difference in motivation. For example, children are motivated by knowing that success will be appreciated, by knowing their talents, by knowing good, caring people who are successes, and by knowing that there is real goodness in the world around them.Schulmann has said, “Stories about compassionate fictional and real-life heroes, famous and unsung, will also help convey the message that empathic concern for others is both good and natural.” We can tell our children stories of people in their own neighborhood, even in their own family, who have done things that are gracious, kind, and fine. We can set good examples of making decisions based on honor and compassion. We can help our children discover their talents. We can involve our children in service. We can provide our children opportunities to learn, grow, and excel.
- Compassion motivates. Children who have experienced compassion and been taught compassion are more likely to act in helpful and proactive ways. They are more likely to work in cooperation with others.There is an irony here. It is common to believe that a child who feels sad should be cheered up. Yet one of the most powerful things that anyone can do for another person is to honor that person’s pain with humble reverence.When we show compassion for someone else’s struggle, that person is likely to find the needed resources in his or her own soul. Standing with a person strengthens that person. Trying to drag or push a person from pain generates resistance.
The nice thing about effective motivation is that it provides people with an enduring disposition not only to do good but to be good.
The everyday challenges in motivating children may seem to take place on a smaller scale. “But how can I get the dishes washed?” That is a reasonable question. Just as in lifelong motivation, micromotivation involves love. A parent who currently understands and values the child whose turn it is to wash the dishes is more likely to be persuasive than the parent who is primarily feeling irritated. The loving parent sees a child who has a certain set of talents, preferences, and dislikes. The loving parent works in cooperation with those unique characteristics of that child. The parent might reflect, “What works best with this child?
Even in washing dishes there is a place for knowledge. Does the child know how to do the job? Does the child feel hope from knowing that the task can be completed in a reasonable time? Does the child know that effort is appreciated?
Compassion combines with knowledge to further strengthen motivation. A wise parent may know that one child needs a little help getting started. Another child may need the invitation to report in for a hug when the job is completed. Another child may need a parent nearby working on some task in order to stave off loneliness. When the child knows that he or she is loved by a sensitive, helpful parent, that child is likely to be motivated.
A harried parent may object that there just is not enough time to turn each chore into a full-fledged training and support operation. That is true. Of course there are many tasks that get done without intense attention. But, in those cases where more effort seems to yield poorer results, it is worth considering whether some combination of love, knowledge, and compassion might help. “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).