After 21 years of homeschooling, I know that motivation runs high at the beginning of the year. But it doesn’t take many weeks before that initial enthusiasm starts to cool. You begin looking forward to Christmas break sooner than you thought you would.
We realize that we need to use some motivational tricks for ourselves and our kids in order to finish the things that we’ve planned. The problem with our motivating efforts is we often buy into several motivation myths that I’m going to describe in this episode. If we do, we will likely continue to struggle.
If you are interested in motivating your homeschooler, I’ve created a video class that you can you use with your spouse or other caregiver that will help you create an effective motivational plan. It includes a handbook for taking action and not just taking in information.
Myth #1: Being the Tough Coach Gets Better Results
The first motivation myth we need to let go of is that being the tough coach will get better results. We had a basketball coach in my high school who was a tough coach and that is putting it nicely. He constantly yelled at players, mocked players, and gave serious harsh consequences for what he considered to be lack of effort. You will not be surprised to learn that he was not loved.
When we play the tough coach, we may think we are motivating but what we are really doing is cutting off relationship, which is the most motivating tool we have. Most kids and adults are motivated more by an encouraging coach who likes and respects them than someone whose own ego is driving their behavior. The basketball coach didn’t want to look bad in front of the fans. He wasn’t as concerned with his players’ feelings and needs. He also lacked a sense of humor. He took being a high school basketball coach in a small town way too seriously. If he had been able to laugh at himself and apologize when he got carried away and yelled, little harm would have been done. But as it is, I only remember his negative behavior.
My 5th grade English teacher was also a tough coach. She didn’t tolerate any nonsense. We were all terrified of her, even though she hadn’t hit us. One severe look from her was enough to have us shaking in our desks.
I wrote a research paper for her class on violent behavior of elephants in captivity. Why I chose that topic, I have no idea. But I took notes on the physical signs of impending elephant violence. After turning in my notecards, my teacher informed me that she was destroying those notes because they were inappropriate. She looked at me as if I had submitted pornography, and that’s exactly how I felt. I am in my 50s and cannot remember a word of praise from her, but I remember that reprimand.
Both the basketball coach and my 5th grade English teacher had skills in their respective areas, but their tough coach approach did not motivate.
Myth #2: The Approving Friend Motivates
The second motivation myth many of us believe is related to the first. If the tough coach approach doesn’t work, we try to be the approving friend. Anything our child does is good and anything our child doesn’t see fit to do is okay. The approving friend doesn’t necessarily have to applaud our choices, but staying silent serves the same purpose.
I had a German teacher who played the approving friend. He would begin teaching and someone in the class would crack a joke, start talking, or interrupt in another way. Rather than take points off for bad behavior or send disruptive students to the principal’s office, he laughed along with us and ignored the lesson for the day. Sometimes he pleaded with us to cooperate. “Come on, guys!” he would say as though he were helpless to stop the melee.
Do you think we were motivated to learn German in his classroom? We were not. My memory of him is of someone who did not deserve our respect.
My chemistry teacher was also the approving friend. He would hand out solutions for us to analyze. If we were stuck at any point, we approached him for help. Rather than ask us what the difficulty was and suggest ways of getting past it, he would tell us exactly what was in the solution. Everyone loved having him as a teacher for an easy A, but we weren’t motivated to learn chemistry.
Students who have an approving friend teacher will be motivated in the short term to get out of challenging work. But with time, behavior problems are added to incomplete studies. Your home is disrupted and everyone is miserable.
Motivation Myth #3: Your Child Has to Agree
Motivation Myth #3 is that your child has to agree. It’s wonderful to give children a voice in decisions like which curriculum to choose, when school and chores will be done, and how much screen time is appropriate. But children do not have to agree to what you decide. Too often we are in a filibuster as we negotiate to motivate them. Only if our child agrees will he be motivated, we think, when our own lives argue the opposite.
How many times have you disagreed with a work or church policy and followed it anyway? Most of us also obey laws we don’t agree with. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that we are to submit to authority because authority is God-given. Only when authority is in conflict with God’s law are we to resist. Just as an aside, that doesn’t preclude political resistance in a democracy. We currently enjoy that privilege.
If you as your child’s authority decide that a certain curriculum, workload, or schedule should be used, your child does not have to agree. But they do have to submit to it. Your home is not a democracy. If you are a Christian homeschooler, your home is a theocracy. God is the head of your homeschool, you and your spouse are under His authority, and your children are under yours.
Motivation Myth #4: Punishments Are the Best Motivator
When you believe that you are the authority, you can fall prey to motivation myth #4 that punishments are the best motivator. Punishment can absolutely be a powerful motivator. We obeyed my 5th grade teacher because we were afraid of what she would do to us. What’s funny to me is I don’t remember her doing anything but giving us the Clint Eastwood “Go ahead and make my day” kinda look. We were also motivated by our track coach to work hard or face the punishment of wind sprints.
But the problem with punishment is fear of it fades. We simply can’t stay afraid all the time. When you first start homeschooling, you may be terrified of being investigated by family services. The fear has you keeping meticulous records. But that fear fades when months and even years go by and there is no knock on the door and no recent terrifying tale of someone who knows someone being investigated.
Our kids are also not motivated by fear of punishment long-term. And punishment has an unintended consequence of making us seem like the tough coach. Our kids can resent us as they see us as the speed trap cop who is always trying to give them a ticket.
Punishment can be effective in your homeschool, but if it isn’t working and you keep trying to make the punishment harsher to motivate, break out of that vicious cycle. Begin using rewards to motivate instead.
Motivation Myth #5: We Shouldn’t Have to Reward Good Behavior
That brings me to motivation myth #5: We shouldn’t have to reward good behavior.
The idea is that our kids should do their work and obey out of respect for us and for the Lord. And that is correct. They should. But in all likelihood they will not. Am I suggesting that we have to pay kids to do their homework and their chores? No. But I am saying that there has to be something in it for them until the desired behavior becomes naturally rewarding.
A reward can be praise. And depending on your child’s personality, that can be very powerful.
Reward can be performing well in front of peers. Typically that reward is avoiding the punishment of looking foolish or being ridiculed. My kids and my friends’ kids were more motivated in their writing, literature studies, and public speaking when in a homeschool co-op class with friends.
Reward can be time with you, privileges, and yes, cash. Rewards given consistently for completed work–not perfect work– can motivate your child.
Motivation Myth #6: Nothing Motivates My Child
But that brings me to motivation myth #6: nothing motivates my child. If that myth speaks to you, my question is what does your child like to do? Even if your answer is nothing, you have told me that your child is motivated by leisure time. Giving leisure time in return for completed work can motivate.
Some children exert their power like POWs in pretending to be unaffected by anything you do. Don’t fall for that act. Loving consistency can motivate kids like these who may be testing your love for them. Your child may wonder if there’s something they can do that will cause you to give up on them. That’s such a terrifying proposition that they’d like to find out now if that’s what you’re going to do. We can use our words to reassure our kids that we will always love them, but our actions speak louder in this case. Children want to be disciplined. That’s how they know we care enough to take the time and energy that discipline requires. I encourage you to listen to a recent episode I did on discipline. I’ll link it in the show notes.
If a reward works for a while and then quits working, your child is normal. We all get tired of things that used to motivate us. In this case, you have a child who craves variety. You can create a reward jar or use an app like the Random app to give your child a surprise reward every time. You will have to change these out regularly too, but you can motivate your child.
To encourage you, I just want to say that now that my kids are self-motivated teens, I don’t have to use reward strategies. If you invest the time and energy into motivating your kids when they are young, they are much more likely to form good habits later on.
If you want a motivated child, get my motivated student class and then stop acting out of the motivation myths I describe above. Stop playing the tough coach and the approving friend. Stop waiting for your child to agree and relying on ever harsher punishments to motivate. Finally, understand that using rewards is natural and that every child is motivated by something. Your job is to keep harnessing the power of rewards until your child finds the rewards that are intrinsic to studying, hard work, and respectful relationships.