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I think I learned more about changing behavior in my undergraduate psych lab training rats than I did in graduate school. We had the daunting task of teaching an animal that can’t speak (besides a squeak!) how to play basketball with a marble. As you look to your homeschool future, your task may seem just as difficult.

Before we did any rat training, we took one very crucial step that we often neglect in our homeschooling: we kept them hungry.

Well-fed rats aren’t motivated to do anything because they’re already being rewarded with what they want most. Rats that are a little hungry (not weak with starvation) are very attentive to anything that earns them a food pellet. The hungry rat that I trained with my partner very quickly learned to press a bar, peek through a window, swing on a trapeze, and yes, play basketball with a marble–all with no lectures.

Children that can communicate with us should be capable of learning a great deal more, but often they don’t. Why? They aren’t hungry.

Why Kids Aren’t Hungry to Learn

Today’s children are being fed a steady diet of things more rewarding than learning. Reading, painting, discovering, experimenting, acting, writing, computing, solving, and creating are naturally rewarding activities. But these treats can’t compare with the taste of electronics. If you’re meticulous about keeping your kids away from screen time, good for you! But if you’re an average American family, your kids still may be full on the rewards of a prosperous lifestyle. Toys, games, trips, treats, and entertainment aren’t just for special occasions anymore. Even if you refrain from giving your children too much, you may have relatives who fill the gap.

In a year, an average first-grader buys or receives 70 new toys.

A rat who isn’t hungry won’t be bothered to press a bar for a food pellet and a child who isn’t hungry to learn won’t be bothered to read.

How Can We Keep ‘Em Hungry?

I live in the same keep-em-fed world you do and I’m constantly looking for strategies to keep my kids hungry to learn. Here are a few that I use or would like to:

  • Limit screen time. This has been my biggest challenge in a house full of boys. Lately the challenge has been having friends call or come over and want to play games and I cave. My plan is to let their friends know when games are off-limits.
  • Limit gifts. When you can’t think of anything to buy your child (been there!), they have too much. I have made some attempts in this area, but want to be even more vocal about requesting time with people they love. Time learning together is a double gift!
  • Say no. Deprivation makes the reward all the sweeter. Saying no is a good idea even when the request is positive. Rewards that are given constantly lose their power to motivate behavior.
  • Make them earn rewards. If kids have free access to lots of stimulating, fun activities that have little educational value, motivation disappears. Educational games should be used as dessert, not the main course.
  • Offer less appealing alternatives. Allowing my reluctant reader to choose between reading and worksheets has helped him develop a great reading habit. Use the choice between undesirable chores or busy work and the subject you want your child to focus on to keep her hungry.
  • Let them get bored. Just like few people know what it’s like to be really hungry anymore, few of us are familiar with real boredom. To find stomach hunger, you may have to go without food for hours (or days!). To help your kids find true boredom, you may have to go without screens, noise, toys, or outside playmates. Consider making a day of your homeschool week a day of fasting from all these “fast-food treats” so you can rediscover how delicious learning really is. I’m definitely considering it.

they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. (Jeremiah 5:27b-28).


I’ll be honest. I have some fat rats at home. I think my belly is protruding, too! Do you have any other ideas on how I can keep my kids hungry to learn? Just a quick caveat. I think it would be easy to leave our little rugrats weak from starvation, too. A little fun and game time gives kids the energy they need to get serious about studying.


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