Dear Dr. T.,
My young teens don’t like to work hard! If something requires effort, they prefer not to learn or master the skill. They have tasted success when I pushed them to practice things such as riding a bike or jumping rope, but they give up so easily and have a low frustration tolerance level, which makes every lesson very difficult. This carries over to schoolwork as well. They would rather do poorly on a test than put in the effort needed to succeed. I’ve tried different motivational tactics which work in the short term, but how do I instill the desire to work hard?
It sounds like your children are part of the “whatever” generation, happy to coast along in a blissful haze of unconsciousness. They are not distressed or discouraged; nor do they suffer from low self-esteem and feel that they “can’t.” They simply, like so many of their cohort, just go with the flow.
Today, many of our youth fit this profile – relaxed, chilled, little get-up-and-go. They often spend lots of time socializing, but don’t show much interest in anything else. They are unwilling to put in much effort and are satisfied with the mediocre. They do what they need to do, but the drive for success or perfection is absent. In fact, they are the polar opposite of the grade-obsessed teens who are there classmates.
So, how did your children – and their friends – get this way?
There are many possibilities here, but the most obvious answer is that children are a product of their environment. In our world today, we want things to be easy and fast. From our up-to-date appliances to our self-driving cars, from ordering online to the proliferation of kosher eateries and takeout all over the country, easy is the driving force. Want a college degree? Take some online courses. Want success in just about any endeavor – parenting, business, health? Just find the right segulah. The concept of working hard for desired results has been lost in our society. It is no exaggeration to say that never have so many had so much, but with so little expenditure of time and effort.
I certainly don’t want to minimize the stress of childhood and adolescence – the peer issues, parent/child conflicts, and lack of choice. Yet, in many areas our children have it too easy. And when there is nothing to work for, where is the motivation? With grade inflation, most students get an A or close to it. In most sports activities and summer camps, each participant gets one award or another. And, while every child deserves to be recognized and lauded, some are beginning to question the self-esteem movement which gave rise to the notion that every child is always a star. I am certainly not suggesting that we go back to an earlier, more competitive, era where only a lucky few were recognized, but I do wonder if we can come up with a more nuanced approach that encourages hard work and effort.
In addition, our children have become used to getting, not doing. Often, they are passive participants rather than active agents. They watch videos rather than make an effort to read a book. They go to theme parks where they are entertained, rather than to a park to play a family game of machanayim. When they are bored, they ask their moms to provide them with a project or – at the very least – to pick up a friend for some diversion.
Changing the status quo requires an effort, but it can be done. Here are some ideas that may help.
- Locate your children’s interest and help them pursue it. We are looking to develop passion here, which is the opposite of “whatever.” Whether it is stamps or stickers, birds or rabbits, we are looking to stimulate enthusiasm that can then generalize into other areas of your children’s life.
- Encourage your children to take music lessons, if possible. Music lessons take practice, patience, and diligence. Your child must work hard and delay gratification to meet their goal. They will have to give up preferred activities to excel. Introducing the concept that hard work pays off is what’s important here.
- Do long-term activities with your children. 500-piece puzzles, model airplanes, knitting/crocheting – all these activities encourage your children to work at something until it is done.
- Model what you want to see. Make sure your children see you working at something, rather than see you flit from one thing to another.
- Have (realistic) expectations of yourself and your children. We don’t want to pressure our children, but we do want to encourage them to meet certain benchmarks. Whether it is homework or chores, tests or school performances, our children need to work towards appropriate goals.
Let’s initiate our children into a world where striving and effort makes all the difference. There is pleasure in a job well done and joy in accomplishment – especially when it has taken hard work to achieve them.
The Book Nook: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Teens and Tweens provides readers with strategies for unlocking their child’s potential. The author, Douglas Haddad, Ph.D., believes that we are unlimited in what we – and our children – can achieve. The book provides ideas for raising children who are successful and self-disciplined.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com