With more and more children and teens showing signs of lazy, unmotivated attitudes toward academics and achievement, parents are struggling to find tools that will inspire a sense of drive. But here’s the catch: most of the unmotivated kids I meet are sincerely motivated. They are just motivated for low-value activity, which has no currency in the real world. They merely are motivated to do what comes easy or what is entertaining. They are not motivated for tasks that they don’t like or for work they find difficult, challenging, or even uninteresting.

Thus, many are motivated to play video games, update their Instagram, watch TV, Netflix or YouTube… but unmotivated to do their schoolwork or help out around the house. Tension and conflict arise when you try to get them ‘going’ on their schoolwork or perhaps just clean their room.

In response to the first couple articles in this series, several readers wrote questions with some version of this:

“I have read the articles Dr. Cale, but my kids just aren’t interested in their school work. What can I do to turn around their attitude?”

This is a great challenge, and today I will elaborate on how essential it is to stick to the parenting formula that will get you there (eventually). Two parenting pieces are essential to master if you are to have success here: First, the focus is in the wrong place. The thought is that you want to affect their internal motivation and that this is the key to success. It is not (at least initially).

Behavior changes first; then attitude changes much later.

Once you can settle into this truth, then you can be patient. You can patiently walk away from the resistance and complaints, as you will eventually get compliance IF you have controlled the goodies (i.e., what they care about). They will do what you want. However, it will come with grumpiness, poor effort, and an attitude. Ignore all the attitude components; just don’t engage.

It is essential to then hold them to a standard of real effort. For example, when they clean their room, they will learn to pull everything out from under the bed once you simply say, “Not yet,” after glancing under the bed a few times. They will get it. When their essay reads as a second grader wrote it, you say, “Not yet.” The drama unfolds, and you walk away, again and again.

The second key is this: Right now, you want them to get their school work and responsibilities done much done more than they do. And they know it.

Make it in their interest to get their work done…more than in your interest.

To turn these situations around, responsibilities/school work must become MORE in their interest to get done, rather than your interest. Thus, when you yell, nag, and get upset with them, you show them you are more concerned than they are. You lose. When you try to force and push them along, they will resist you. You lose. When you offer that well-intentioned, reality-based lecture, again and again, they just roll their eyes and ask if you think they are stupid. You lose. Anything that shows your emotional investment is more than theirs…you lose.

Thus, patience is key in the early stages. You must trust the leverage and focus on the behavior. Not the attitude. Focus entirely on impeccable control of the leverage you have, and make sure there is clarity about what is required for your child to get to the goodies. This is where you get your power with a resistant, lazy child. Use it.

Seven keys to failure with the unmotivated child.

  1. Keep talking about it over and over.
  2. React and get emotional when your kids get ugly, disrespect you, and throw a fit.
  3. Be inconsistent and cut them slack depending upon recent effort or ‘nice’ behavior.
  4. Don’t take the time to write it down, so you can have an excuse to keep talking about the plan
  5. Be weak and give in to soothing them, when they are upset about the plan
  6. Be inconsistent in your controls over the goodies. Thus, they can cheat the system.
  7. Remain too serious about this, giving away your emotional investment in their efforts.

Please notice that every single failure symptom is a result of poor execution and lack of self-discipline. It’s not about the child here, and their oppositional, defiant, ugly temperament. Yes, all that may be present. But the key to success is your control of yourself and the environment.

I am hopeful that this will help you turn things around in your home. As always, stay strong and focused. I am certain you can do this with the right effort and patience.