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How to Motivate an Unmotivated Child

Photograph by Twenty20

Every morning since my 7-year-old son started pre-school has been a battle of wills to get ready. When I wake him at the always-too-early time of 6:30 a.m. he instantly begins to groan. In the first two weeks of this school year, not adjusted to his new "mean teacher" as he describes her, the groans became shouts of outrage. "No, no, no!"

Some days there are tears and heart-rending cries of "I hate school, Mommy." Other days his legs "don't work," and he will crawl down the hallway like an injured snake, gathering up dust bunnies and cat hair along the way as I fume in the kitchen because time is running out. Yet other days he just pouts and fumes in his room until my husband or I start snapping.

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Nobody had to set an alarm for me as a child. I awoke with the sunrise, dressed and readied myself for school from as early as first grade. I was an anxious child who suffered the insults of the cruel social hierarchy of my Marin County, California school by hiding in far corners of the playground with my books and my journal. But I adored learning, which opened avenues into my internal strengths and offered crucial reprieve from a home life in which my mother was often difficult to rouse due to a vicious hangover and a lack of urgency when it came to getting us anywhere on time.

Don't you know how good you have it? I want to shout.

My mother didn't rush me to get ready as a child. I didn't dawdle over the details or drag my feet. But then, my mother was rarely awake herself to nag me into readiness, and I was eager to leave the house for school. So when my son, who has grown up in a two-parent, loving and stable home, where all of his needs are met, resists doing the four or five chores he has in the morning to ready himself for school, a primal anger surges through me. Don't you know how good you have it? I want to shout.

Many children of addicts, as I am, are known to become hyper-attentive, organized and efficient, picking up the slack where their parents cannot. This translated into my own parenting. I've always been "on top of it"—laying his clothes out for him; making sure his breakfast is ready; reminding him of each next step. There have been a few successful stints at making a list he has to check himself with colored pens on a dry-erase board. That worked for a while, but eventually he gave in to his own internal inertia, secure in the knowledge that if he didn't do it, someone would remind him.

James Lehman, a child psychologist, writes: "When we're talking about kids not getting out of bed, not doing their homework or school assignments or not wanting to get involved in family activities, it's important for parents to realize that there is motivation in the child. But the motivation is to resist. The motivation is to do things their way, not yours, and to retain power."

Both my husband and I came out of challenging childhoods where our comfort and ease were not our parents' priorities, so it makes sense that both of us have overcompensated too much in the other direction, trying to make life "easier" on our son. Unfortunately, it has led to making things perhaps too easy, and we pay the price when he resists doing what is hard.

I'm not going to teach my son responsibility the way my mother inadvertently "taught" me, by being incapable herself. But I need to learn to back off and, as Lehman suggests, let my son face the "natural consequences" of his own actions. That means if he doesn't eat breakfast before we leave, he goes to school hungry (he has snack and lunch packed, so I know he won't starve). That means if he didn't get his shoes and socks on before his dad leaves to take him to school, he'll have to walk barefoot to the car, carrying them and put them on in there. If he forgot to have me sign his homework agenda, he has to take time out of recess to write a responsibility note. These are not great tragedies; they're lessons.

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My son is teaching me more than a few lessons: One, my child is not a mirror of me, and I have to learn how to be the parent he needs, not the parent I think I should be. Two, a relationship with a child is still just that—a relationship—and trying to dominate or will your child into doing something is no more likely to work in the long run than it would with a spouse or a friend. Last, the best thing a parent can do when a child is digging in his or her heels is to give up the power struggle, step back, and let the child learn both the highs and lows of personal responsibility.

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