How Hard Should We Push Our Kids?

Have you ever worried because your child seems unmotivated?  Perhaps he does the bare minimum amount of work required for his school assignments.  Maybe your daughter waits to be told what to do and needs constant supervision to ensure that she completes assignments.  These children just don’t seem to care if they learn or not, and they are certainly not self-motivated when it comes time to do schoolwork.  Here’s an interesting thought.  Everyone is motivated to do something, and if you learn to be observant of your child he will show you what motivates him.

Ideally, you want your child to have intrinsic motivation, meaning they are internally motivated to succeed at tasks.  These are the children who push themselves to greater achievement.  Working hard to achieve good results is very satisfying.  They want to do well and don’t need to have a teacher standing over them to keep them on task because they feel rewarded by a job well done.   In extreme cases, and sometimes into adulthood, these students appear self-driven to accomplish their goals.  Children like these do not need much parental pushing to challenge them to work hard because they have learned how to motivate and push themselves toward greater knowledge and skills.

Then there are the children who are not intrinsically motivated and are dependent on externalized prompts and perceived rewards to entice them to work hard.  They will work for prizes or extra privileges.  They respond to reward systems that offer some sort of desirable treat or activity with great frequency, because they can’t work too hard or long for a distant reward.  They tend to live in the moment and not give a lot of thought to what may or may not occur in the future. They need lots of pats on the back and little rewards to keep them going because they are not intrinsically satisfied by working hard and getting things done.

Do these children need to be pushed along?  I think so.  Without any parental input they might never choose to do schoolwork.  For some of us, if we wait until our children indicate that they are ready and willing to learn we could be waiting a long, long time.  Usually our children have at least a few areas that are of interest to them, but often these are not the academic subjects that we must teach.  Our children may be motivated to play video games or draw pictures, but for activities that are not highly interesting to them they simply don’t have the internal drive to do those tasks anyway.

Yes, there are many children who need a gentle push to keep them moving in the right direction.  How much we push depends on the needs of the children.  For example, a student may appear unmotivated when in fact he is a struggling learner and the work actually is harder for him than for most children.  We push such a student to do his best by providing the support and strategies that will help him learn.  When there is truly a learning difference, we can’t just push the child to try harder.  We can, however, teach this child how to be persistent, how to advocate for what he needs and the importance of doing his best in everything he sets out to do.

Another factor in how much we should push our children is their developmental level.  Notice I did not say to go by how old they are, but by their developmental level.  That is because there are great variations in maturity, and using chronological age as the determining factor in your expectations for a child is often not the best criteria.  Some children are slower to mature, and all the well-intended pushing we can muster will not force their bodies and brains to mature more quickly.  A rule of thumb that I use is to push the children in order to challenge them, but don’t push so much that it just frustrates them.  In that case, pushing our children backfires and we have additional resistance to our attempts to move them along more quickly.

A final consideration is your child’s temperament.  Some children tend to be shy or introverted.  Should you push these children into social situations because they have to learn how to deal with a lot of different kinds of people?  While that may be true, I think it’s important to be sensitive to our children’s comfort level.  I have an introverted child who finds crowded social situations stressful and draining.  Should I push him into more group situations so he can get used to it?  I think not.  If I force my child to engage in a lot of social activities when he does not feel the need for them and does not enjoy them, I think it sends a message to the child that I am trying to change him.  In the child’s mind, our attempts to push them into uncomfortable situations often become translated as “There must be something wrong with me because I really don’t enjoy this at all.”

We all want our children to be successful.  Some will mature and become more motivated while others will always be more reliant on external motivators.  Here’s the rub.  We can do our children a disservice if we don’t push them because their childish ways could prevent them from learning what they need to know.  On the other hand, if we push too hard we can frustrate and discourage our children and that negatively impacts our relationship with them.  How do you decide how much to push your children?  As for me, I always felt like I was just the slightest bit out of balance no matter how much or how little I pushed my children.  Being a good teacher and parent is not an exact science, but we can continually make corrections as needed once we learn to observe our children and the ways they learn.

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