When my kids were young, a gold star, a dollar store prize or even a simple “good job, honey” was usually enough to bring a satisfied smile to their sweet, little faces. And then they’d skip off to finish a homework assignment or complete a chore so they could earn a prize — and my approval — once again.
Then they turned into tweens and teens. And suddenly I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Hanging with friends became much more attractive than hitting the books. And me? Well, overnight my wisdom evaporated. Might as well have just planted a dunce cap on my head.
Kids hit adolescence and our once powerful influence seems to be thrown on the trash heap — along with those now-worthless sticker charts. And it happens just when our children stand to benefit most from our life experience and direction. Just when the stakes are the highest.
Believe it or not, they really do still want our approval and our guidance. Really. We just have to become more creative — and sometimes more covert — in our methods and delivery.
Here are a few methods that I’ve found to be effective in my sticker-free tween/teen world:
Turn wishing into action. At the beginning of each school year, my husband and I encourage the kids to write down some goals for the new year. But we quickly discovered goals are not enough. They often don’t know how to reach them. And a goal without a plan is what we call a wish. So now, I ask them to think through how they are going to reach it. It helps to revisit those goals a few times a year. If they are having trouble meeting them, ask them what they can do differently. Also, small, frequent rewards are helpful in boosting motivation levels.
Give them a vision for the future. Teens often don’t think past what they’re doing Friday night. When I wanted to give my soccer-player daughter a future vision for college, I sent her to a three-day soccer camp on a college campus. She slept and ate at the dorms and received a reality-packed (C’s aren’t gonna cut it!) lecture from an admissions counselor. Now she had an exciting picture of the future and what it took to get there. Camps can be expensive, but most offer scholarships. Another idea is to arrange for your teen or tween to spend a day shadowing someone in a field that interest them.
Don’t rescue. When we see our kids begin to falter and underperform, our first instinct is to be the safety net. As a former “safety net” mom, here’s my advice: Don’t. Rescuing gives them no reason to change. But if an ‘F’ on a test or a zero on a homework assignment also doesn’t provide motivation, curtail their weekend plans and/or media time.
Speak confidence into them. Nagging and lecturing isn’t very inspiring. Regular, sincere comments like these can be: “You got a B on your English test? I knew you were capable of that!” or “I’ve noticed that Math seems to come pretty easily to you. If you keep working hard, I bet you could take Honors Geometry next year.”
Having said all that, here is the cold, hard truth: They have to want it. We can direct, encourage and set boundaries but we cannot force an internal motivation and drive. At some point — and we all pray it’s while they’re young — they’ll realize that they’ve had enough of mediocre. We can guide, but they have to decide.
As one of my children recently said to me, “One day, I just figured out that there really is no down side to doing well and getting good grades.”
Give that kid a gold star.