Motivation Happens

Here was Marco last night, curled up with his current book, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules."

Some kids are “self-starters,” but Marco’s not. That’s what I thought two years ago, when he was 5.

Those other kids, the “exceptional ones,” have their own interests and passionately pursue them on their own. On the other hand, Marco will probably always need to be guided, force-fed.

Today, I can see that I was dead wrong, I’m happy to say.

At 7, he’s an independent reader. He reads on his own for at least 15 minutes a night, and he recently completed his first long book on his own, a 217-pager called Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Now, he’s on the second Wimpy Kid book, and we have to force him to put it down to go to bed every night. He’s that into it.

These days, outside of reading, he’s spending a lot of time playing a marbles game with his 4-year-old brother, Nico, that he completely invented. Jean Piaget would be proud. Marco’s rules are complex, and bend for Nico. He’s figured out that the game needs to be structured so that Nico wins once in a while, or else he won’t have a game at all.

Also, he’s always looking for chores to do around that house that can earn him some money. The truth is that his labor is not very useful yet to our family, but my wife and I can see that he’s getting there, so we give him small monetary incentives to do things like harvest vegetables from our garden or clean his room.

Another, more subtle change my wife and I have noticed in Marco lately is that he doesn’t whine for one of us to do things for him like he used to. He’s one of three children, and has come to accept, or even relish, his family’s structure. On the one hand, he often doesn’t have a parent’s undivided attention, but on the other hand, he has a lot of freedom, and he often has a brother or two to play with. He’s enjoying his competence and independence. So, he very willingly rides his bike home from school every day on his own, he dresses and undresses himself, and he reads to himself every night.

My point in writing all this is not to claim that Marco is some sort of exceptional self-starter kid. On the contrary, we did not see this characteristic coming in him until lately. Instead, our experience with him supports the notion that pretty much any kid can become self-motivated, if given the right environment.

My wife and I have very consciously created an environment for Marco and his brothers that encourages free play. We’ve severely limited his screen time and structured activities. On the other hand, we’ve created an exceptionally stimulating yard and neighborhood environment. With regard to more academic learning, we try hard to find his interests and buy books or DVDs that match those interests.

For many years, Marco didn’t seem to be thriving in this environment. I mean, he’s always seemed fairly happy, but he never seemed to be particularly focused or motivated. He was rather passive and uninspired.

However, I can see now that those years were not wasted time at all. He was developing competence and confidence in many ways. Now, he’s really taking off.

Most parents never stand aside long enough to let their kids’ self-motivation develop. They let them zone out in front of screens or they schedule them with lots of adult-led activities every day. Then, they lament that their kids aren’t self-motivated.

Rather, I’d say their kids weren’t given an environment to develop self-motivation.

Motivation happens. It’s not a hard-wired genetic trait. If you create the environment and exercise some patience, it’ll come.

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