A few years ago, parents came into my office agonizing over their son David’s behavior. His mother started by saying, “He’s so unmotivated. I can’t get him to get out of bed in time for school. I can’t get him to brush his teeth. And if he does do these simple tasks, he won’t change his clothes. He’s always two hours late to school!”

David’s father chimed in, “In school, too, he is so unmotivated. He won’t do his homework or learn. Here we are, with a 10-year-old, and we are still doing his homework for him!”

What David’s parents don’t understand is that David is motivated – very motivated, in fact.  He is motivated to resist.


Attempting to Gain Control

Children live with the constant expectation that they follow the rules set for them by authority figures.  Often, they feel the need to gain control over their lives, and at times they will resort to resistance as a way of asserting their independence and authority.

There are several ways to deal with children who are resisting your efforts to motivate them:

·         Tame your anxiety. Children will often get caught up in a power struggle: you push, and they resist. Your anxiety about the consequences of their actions will only teach them how to appease or resist you. Instead of focusing on themselves and finding an internal motivation, they will be trained to react to you. Calm down and take a step back.

·         Create inspiration. Change your behaviors so that you can be a positive role model for your child. Your child will resist if you are too controlling, so instead of trying to exert control over his behavior, try to guide and mold his behavior by example.

·         Let your child face consequences of his actions. If your child does not do his homework, don’t do it for him. Let him deal with the negative consequences in school. If he doesn’t get out of bed, let him get in trouble for coming to school late. In this way, you will be allowing him to take responsibility for his actions.

·         Erase the guilt. Your child’s lack of motivation is most probably not an outgrowth of your lack of trying. If you take guilt out of the equation, you are placing the responsibility on your child’s shoulders. He is free to make his own decisions, fail, and accept the consequences.

When a child resists, he is fighting the parent, not the action. If you omit yourself from the picture, you are allowing him to accept accountability for his actions. After a few failures, he will recognize that motivation comes from within.

Learned Helplessness

The desire for control is not always the cause of what appears as lack of motivation. Some children who appear unmotivated actually have an undiagnosed learning disability (LD) which is causing them to resist. If a child has a disability that makes schoolwork exceptionally difficult and frustrating, and he tends to fail even when he tries, then he will naturally develop a lack of motivation and resist the efforts of parents and teachers to force him to do his work. As Dr. Marshall Raskind says, “Over time, children with LD may just stop trying, entering a state of ‘learned helplessness’ where they see little connection between their efforts and ultimate outcomes. ‘Why bother?’, ‘No matter how hard I try, I always end up failing.’”

Research indicates that as much as 70 percent of children with LD suffer from poor self-esteem, which naturally leads to a lack of motivation. After all, if I am not worth much, then why should I work hard to achieve?

So, the first thing you must do if you find your child is unmotivated is to have him evaluated to determine if perhaps the lack of motivation is the result of a disability.

Once the child is diagnosed, work on rebuilding his broken self-esteem. The first thing you can do is to make him understand that his learning disability does not make him stupid or slow. Tell him about Albert Einstein’s struggles in grade school and Beethoven’s difficulties with hearing loss. They turned their weaknesses into strengths.  Children with LD need to know that their disability in no way means that they cannot achieve and be successful.

Then, you can look for his strengths. Is he really creative? Athletic? Generous? Whatever his strength is, make the most of it. Sign him up for an afterschool activity that he will excel in. This will not only help him gain confidence, but will also introduce him to children his own age who share his passion. He will gain self-esteem and self-confidence, which will naturally boost his motivation.

Every Child is Motivated

Perhaps the most important piece of advice for parents of so-called unmotivated children is that no child is truly unmotivated. It’s simply a matter of decoding the child’s behavior and figuring out the best way to help him realize his true potential.

Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld, founder and director of the SOS program, is an educator and educational consultant with specialization as a keriah and reading coach. Serving the Jewish community for close to 30 years, she has experience providing evaluations, G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness.