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How to Motivate Teenagers, Part 1

By Q&A with Josh Shipp, “The Teen Whisperer”

How to Motivate Teenagers, Part 1

Does your teen seem completely unmotivated? For parents of teens, the refrains of, “Whatever,” and “I don’t care,” can become all too familiar. This week, Josh Shipp explains where your child’s motivation really lies—and how you can tap into it in Part 1 of “How to Motivate Teenagers.”

EP: Josh, what should parents do when their child seems to be unmotivated?

JS: I think that most—if not all—kids have drive, but I think there has to be a reason for the drive. What most kids need is a “why.” Eric Chester calls teens “Generation Why” because they always want to know, “Why am I doing this? Why is this history project important to me?” And the answer from you can’t be, “Because I told you so.” The answer can’t even necessarily be “because this is your school work.” There has to be something within your child that pushes him past the inconveniences, the shortcomings, and the hiccups that will, without question, arise when he undertakes something that’s challenging. So it’s important for kids to understand why they want to do something, not just that they have to do it.

"What you want to communicate to your child is that you have to do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do."

If you’re the parent of a teen, you know how much they like to debate and question things. Sometimes that’s a pain, but I think it’s actually okay to a point. Here’s something I’ve come to understand from personal experience as a teen. When they finally understand how something benefits them, they will do it long term. If the reason your child does something is only because it’s important to you, that is short term motivation and that will end. The reason also needs to be important to your child, not just important to you. If your daughter is making good grades only because she wants to make you happy, eventually that’s probably going to stop. She needs to have a personal reason WHY. Her personal reason can be that when you do a good job at something difficult, you have a sense of accomplishment. Feeling a sense of accomplishment is worth the effort it takes to experience it.

Here’s an example from my own life. I’m part of a running group that meets every morning. Do I want to get up at 5 a.m. and run? Heck No! Why do I do it? Other people depend on me to be there. Something is motivating me to get out of bed. I think there’s a sense of accountability that we as human beings have; our default nature is that we will disappoint ourselves before we disappoint others. If it was just me, I assure you that I would hit the snooze button seven out of ten times. But instead I think, “I promised Steve I would be there; he’ll give me a hard time if I don’t show up.” And secondly, it makes me feel good. Most people don’t drive to the gym and then stay in the parking lot—the issue is that they never get in the car. Once you do something you have a sense of accomplishment; you feel good about it and it’s worth it. It’s just the getting started part that’s the pain.

EP: So what’s a good way to explain what the “WHY” is and how your child is going to benefit from it?

JS: Here’s the place I would start. It’s very unlikely that you have a kid that is 100% lazy and unmotivated. What’s more likely is that in a few areas that drive you crazy as a parent, he’s lazy and unmotivated. This was true for me. As a kid, in certain periods of my life, I wasn’t focused on my academics, but I was 100% committed to baseball. I would practice batting, throwing and catching for hours. Clearly I had the ability to be disciplined and to work hard at something. So what I would say is, find an area where your child is motivated. Where is she committed? Talk to her about that. You can say, “Why is it that you’re so committed to softball?” She might say, “Well, I think it’s fun. I like it and my friends are on the team.” Then you can come back with, “Okay, so how could you transfer that to these other things that are important in your life? How could you take some of that ambition you have and transfer that to your schoolwork, which is also important? Could you figure out a way to make your homework fun and involve your friends?”

EP: Why would a child want to do that? Just putting myself into a kid’s head right now, I’m thinking, “Okay, Mom wants me to do my homework.” But why would I want to transfer my love of softball into doing my history project?”

JS: That brings us back to the “why” of things. I think it’s important to help your child understand why she needs history and school. So you can say, “You may not love history, but you need history in order to graduate.” What you want to communicate to your child is that you have to do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do. Find out what your child wants to do or become in the future. The average kid’s ambition does require them to graduate high school. I’m not saying every kid needs to go to a four year college. Some are better working with their hands or going to technical school, but you have to graduate high school. So you can say to your child, “Look, history is one of those things that you have to do so you can do what you want to do. Maybe later you want to be a computer programmer. That’s great, but you’re going to need to go to college for that. At the very least you’re going to need a high school degree.” It’s the concept of “short–term sacrifice for long–term gain.”

I also tell teens that the issue isn’t the piece of paper—the document that says “I graduated from Central High School.” The issue is that no company wants to hire a quitter. And if you drop out or stop doing the work, you are categorizing yourself as a quitter. It’s just not worth it.

EP: OK, that makes sense. So what should you say if your child says that they hate math or they’re not good at chemistry? How do you motivate them then?

JS: I think it’s okay for your kid to say, “I hate history. I’m not good at this.” Those are fine things to express. And you don’t need to say, “No you don’t.” After all, maybe they don’t like history. We all have subjects that we gravitate towards a little more. That’s not what you need to focus on. What you DO need to focus on is “I understand that you don’t like it, but how can you succeed at this?” Maybe that means your child doesn’t make an “A” in history, but he needs to at least do his best so he can graduate.

Again, to them, it’s a valid feeling when they say, “I’m not good at this. This is hard. I hate history.” In my opinion, a good response from you is, “I have no problem with you hating history. But I do have a problem with you quitting tonight.”

EP: Josh, what about kids who come across as lazy or unmotivated but really it’s a self–esteem issue. Some kids worry a lot and just don’t feel like they can do it.

JS: This is a very good point. I think there’s a lot of pressure on kids, and many of them tell me that they get anxious or feel overwhelmed with everything they have to do. I think, to a certain degree, kids are not allowed to be kids these days. They need to be college ready and fluent in eight different languages by the time they’re four years old.

Sometimes kids really are overscheduled. It’s pretty realistic that they would feel overwhelmed in that case. I think it’s important for you to help your child make positive goals and then make sure the things that he or she is saying yes or no to match up with that.

Frankly, I think a lot of us (myself included) need to make “To Don’t” lists. We make so many “To Do” lists in our lives, but sometimes they’re just entirely too lengthy. I think we need to commit to not doing some things. It’s freeing for kids to sit down and write out the things they don’t need to do in their lives, and it also helps them narrow down what they need to focus on.

EP: Josh, what about procrastination? Do teens put things off because they’re anxious about not being able to do something?

JS: I think the issue here is that we often look at step ten, but we don’t see step one. We think, “I have this big project due by next week”—but that’s step ten. How do you get there? You’ve got to do steps one through nine. There’s a famous story about a woman who had to write a book report about a hundred birds. How did she do that? Bird by bird.

If your child is feeling overwhelmed, what I don’t suggest you do is relieve them of the things they have committed to by doing any of those things for them. Don’t say, “You’ve got five things to do, let me do one of them for you.” When you do that, you’re handicapping your kid. You’re essentially letting them give up without letting them experience the guilt. And believe me, your child needs to experience that guilt and disappointment if he gives up.

What you can do is help him break it down. Lots of kids are visual, so you can say something like, “All right, these are the four things you have to do this week, let’s write these four things down. Let’s look at your time. It looks like Tuesday would probably be the best day for you to do this. Does that sound good? You could do it Thursday afternoon after practice.” Just help them break it down. Most kids lack a game plan. So this monster that’s actually quite small and which your child could probably slay easily becomes an enormous beast in his mind. He starts thinking, “Oh my gosh, there’s no way I can do this.” And so instead of actually doing his work or getting stuff done, your teen sits around agonizing about it. And then the deadline looms more and then he gets more and more freaked out. My advice is, don’t handicap your kids by doing things for them; empower them by helping them develop a plan for how to do it themselves.

EP: That makes a lot of sense. But what about kids who need help getting started? Would you recommend giving them help in the beginning of a project?

JS: I think that’s fine. What I would want to see, though, is my child asking for my help—not me shoving it upon him. I think it’s important to talk to kids about how they can creatively ask for help. Your child could run his project by a friend who’s doing one of his own. He could go on the Internet and look for ideas. He could ask you what you think about his project and how he’s planning to go about doing it. I want to see kids learning things here, like how to ask for help and use the resources that they have. I have no problem with a parent helping, but I think it’s important for your child to learn how to ask for that help.

And I would say, “I have no problem helping you out. I’m not going to do it for you, but let me know specifically what you would like help on.” This is how you can relieve pressure without doing it for your child. So let’s say your son says, “Hey, I’m really having a hard time finding this research book, Dad. Could you try to hunt it down on Amazon or see if the bookstore has it or something?” I think you could say, “I’m happy to do that. I know that would help you out; I’ll do that so you don’t have to run across town.” So making a plan, reading it over, giving feedback, critiquing their work—totally fine in my opinion. Again, you’re helping but you’re not doing the work for them. I’ve met too many 17–year–olds who are still being babied. They need to get up off the couch and do it themselves, because if they don’t, then they’re 19 and they go to college and they wonder why things are falling apart.

So we have to be careful as parents. I think you have to ask yourself, “Am I helping my kid to actually help my kid or am I helping my kid for my own ego?” This is a question I love because it’s sort of a punch in the gut. So, is it that I don’t want to have the kid that gets an “F” on his book report? Is it that I don’t want to look like an idiot or be embarrassed? Or is it that you want to help your child learn something?

EP: So how do you motivate a child who has a self–esteem issue?

JS: People can say things that are motivational to us; we can experience things that are motivating, but whether or not we’re motivated is up to us. I’m not necessarily of the belief that you can motivate anybody. Motivation is something we have to choose. Every single day you wake up and you have that choice. Will I be my best or will I not? Not the best, but my best. Will I apply myself, will I try these difficult things? One thing that you can do as a parent is expose your kids to things that inspire them. Maybe your child does want to be a computer programmer and there’s a computer programming convention in town. Take him to it. It may be the most boring thing in the world for you, but your child is totally going to nerd out and be all excited about it. Use what your kid is into to motivate him. Maybe you know someone who’s a computer programmer who would talk with your kid. Obviously this person is going to say that there are certain things you’ve got to do to be successful in that field, certain sacrifices you have to make. They might say, “Yes, I love what I do, but there were certain goals I had to achieve to get here, like graduating from high school and going to college.”

I personally find that when you surround yourself with people who are doing what you want to do, it inspires you. You realize that they’re just people, they’re not super human. They made mistakes and had some roadblocks but they kept going and they’re doing what they love. It makes you think, “Wow, this is possible. If this guy did it, why can’t I?”

Sometimes the key is just knowing that someone else was able to achieve what you want to achieve. Back in the ‘50’s, no one had ever run a four minute mile. A lot of people tried it and then finally Roger Bannister ran it in 3:59. Then a month later, four other people did it, and that’s because they were inspired. Someone proved to them that it was possible. Encourage your kids not to study their heroes’ end results, but their heroes’ first steps. By the time someone becomes your kid’s hero, they’re on step eight, nine or ten. So read about them, look online. What were their first steps, how many times did they go bankrupt? How many times did Michael Jordan get kicked off his high school basketball team? How many times did the publisher say no, we don’t like your book? Study the first steps, not the end results.

I think these sorts of things provide for better motivation than trying to come up with the perfect sentence or the exact right thing to say to your child to get them to do what you want them to do.

Next week, Josh will tell you how you can have conversations with your teen that help them stay on track and achieve their goals. He gives you helpful tips and tells you what you should—and shouldn’t—say when talking to your teen. Stay tuned for part two of “How to Motivate Your Teen”.

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About Q&A with Josh Shipp, “The Teen Whisperer”

Josh Shipp is a teen communication expert. Abandoned and abused as a child, Josh was able to triumph over the tragedy and positively influence the lives of the countless adolescents he’s coached. He has appeared on MTV, CNN, and FOX. Josh has spoken at Harvard, M.I.T., UCLA, and Stanford on the science of getting teens to listen.

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