Learning how to let your teens motivate themselves

pencil sketch "The Self-Driven Child"

By William Stixrud and Ned Johnson

Bill once worked with a fifteen-year-old who hated homework. When he asked Jonah to walk him through a typical evening at home, Jonah said, “We usually eat dinner between six and six thirty. And then I can watch TV from six thirty to seven. Then from seven to eight thirty, I pretend to do my homework.”

An hour and a half pretending to do homework? That’s a whole lot of effort put into not doing something. Imagine him sitting there, his homework in front of him. Jonah’s parents meant well, but out of the cacophony of voices, one message was coming across loud and clear: We know what’s right for you, and you don’t. The only way he felt he could assert his own identity was by doing nothing.

At times, we can stop children and teenagers from doing things we don’t want them to do by physically restraining them or coming up with onerous consequences. We can physically do things to them, like carry them to the dentist’s office kicking and screaming. We can try to reframe the proposition in an effort to get their cooperation or buy in. And we can try to motivate them by offering incentives or making threats. But the reality is that you can’t really make your children do anything. We do not live in the totalitarian world of A Clockwork Orange, where people’s behavior can be controlled by hooking them up to machines. The best we can do is make it unpleasant enough so that they will comply. Even if this method sometimes seems to work in the short term, it doesn’t work at all in the long term. It’s like fear—a short-term motivator that will get you to run fast, but with negative long-term consequences, because who can really live that way?

Coming to peace with the reality that you can’t make your kid do things is actually liberating. For one thing, you can take the pressure off. This is the message Bill conveyed to Jonah’s parents. He explained that their attempts to assert control triggered Jonah’s determination to reassert his own control, even if it meant doing the opposite of what was in his own best interest. By communicating to Jonah that he was ultimately responsible for his homework, his parents would release him from the reflex to fight tooth and nail against any display of dominance. Bill also wanted Jonah’s parents to understand that just because they were worried about some of his choices didn’t mean they had to constantly project a tone of disapproval. They could—and should—have fun and relax with him without thinking that every minute of their time together needed to signal the gravity of the situation.

In the end, Jonah’s parents took Bill’s advice, though it was not easy. Instead of asking, “Do you have homework tonight?” his mom started saying, “Is there anything you’d like help with tonight? I’d like to know, so I can plan my evening.” She made it clear that she was willing to do what she could to help, and that she’d set aside time to help him if he wanted help. She made sure there was a quiet room for him to study without distractions. She offered to hire a tutor or an older high school kid to come over and help. (Many children who fight their parents during homework time will work eagerly for a tutor or a high school student, who can be employed at relatively low cost as a homework tutor.) But Jonah’s parents also said, “What we’re not willing to do is to act like it’s our job to make you work— because we’ll weaken you if we do.”


At first Jonah floundered. His day-to-day relationship with his parents improved, but his poor performance continued for several months. Then one day he met with his guidance counselor, who pointed out that he would need to plan for an extra year of high school as he wasn’t meeting the requirements for graduation. This got Jonah’s attention. It meant he wouldn’t be graduating with his friends. He started paying more attention to schoolwork, and asked his parents for help. He actually went to night school on top of his regular school day for two years in order to graduate on time. He went on to be successful in college as a psychology major, something his parents would at one time have hardly believed possible.

There’s another moral to Jonah’s story. Teachers can teach, coaches can coach, guidance counselors can outline graduation requirements, but there’s one thing only parents can do: love their kids unconditionally and provide them with a safe base at home. For children who are stressed at school or in other parts of their lives, home should be a safe haven, a place to rest and recover. When kids feel that they are deeply loved even when they’re struggling, it builds resilience. Battling your child about due dates and lost work sheets invites school stress to take root at home. So instead of nagging, arguing, and constant reminding, we recommend repeating the mantra, “I love you too much to fight with you about your homework.”

Think of kids yelling out “I’m on base” during games of tag to prove they are safe to rest and regroup. When home is a safe base, kids and teens feel freer to explore the possibilities away from home in healthy ways. They’ll return periodically, checking back in for reassurance and security. Without that sense of security, teens will tend to swing in two different directions: folding in on themselves, or leaving home every chance they get, desperate to create a safe base somewhere else. The dots connect themselves: if there’s a lot of stress at home, kids are much more susceptible to risky behavior.

From THE SELF-DRIVEN CHILD: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Child More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson, published on February 13, 2018 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson.

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