The Underachieving Phenomenon

This is Part 2 in a series on motivation and kids. For Part 1 CLICK HERE and for Part 3 click HERE.

Are kids spoiled rotten these days? We have gardeners to mow our lawns, housekeepers to vacuum and dust our house, and drive-through car washes to keep the family car(s) clean as soon as they get the smallest of a smudge.

The problem is that these tasks were once chores that used to be a staple for kids to perform way back when, and now they are just a blip in our kid’s day as they witness other people completing these seemingly mundane tasks.

There is also speculation that today’s kids are lazy because today’s parents don’t seem to REQUIRE their kids to perform daily chores (FULL DISCLOSURE: I may struggle in this area on a daily basis!). We seem to prioritize our kids’ academic and extracurricular activities over daily chores because we simply run out of time each day to require our kids to perform daily household activities. Or maybe this is how we rationalize not requiring more from our kids – I am definitely guilty on this one!


Is There a Problem?

Maybe we are expecting too much of our kids and there really isn’t a problem with their motivation. Maybe we are just big “fuddy duddies” who like to remember our childhoods through rose-colored glasses – you know, we had to walk 20 miles through the snow to school; we couldn’t eat dinner before we milked the cows; completed the laundry; and washed all the windows, etc., etc., etc.

If we asked kids and young adults if THEY thought they were lazy or unmotivated, they would think they were as motivated as their parents and grandparents, right??

Not right. It turns out that in a 2009 PEW Survey, 74% of all 1,815 people (ages 16 – 85) who responded to the survey believed that older adults have a superior work ethic compared to millennials (people ages 12 – 32). AND WHAT’S MORE SHOCKING IS THAT THE MILLENNIALS AGREED! A whopping 68% of people under 30 answering this survey also agreed that older people have a better work ethic! Yikes! This is scary!

Anecdotally, I can report that I come across a range of motivation in the kids that I work with at the clinic. Some kids seem to have an inherit drive to explore new things, achieve rewards, or immerse themselves in a consuming passion. Conversely, some kids appear to be happy just listening to music or watching YouTube all day without any apparent passion or goal.


My Greatest Fear

My greatest fear for the kids that I work with, as well as for my own kids, is that if our kids don’t learn a good work ethic while they are young, then they will risk the chance of never understanding how to reach a goal OR they might prefer to settle for less simply because they do not want to go to the effort it would take to have for a better life.

Dr. Ruth Peters, author of the book Overcoming Underachieving, appears to have the same worry. In her book, she states that, “Daily in my practice I see parents who have made the mistake of not taking the time and attention to teach their children to be workers and achievers. These kids have learned to settle for less rather than to face and challenge adversity, to become whiners rather than creative problem solvers, and to blame others for perceived slights and lack of success.”

These kids seem to prefer to exist in simplicity rather than go to the trouble of exerting effort to improve their lives.

It’s not that I am suggesting that we need to teach our kids to be materialistic, uber-achieving, selfish individuals; my hope for our kids is that they learn to become ambitious, passionate individuals with a “go get ‘em” attitude so that they can conquer all their dreams, desires, and philanthropic endeavors.


Can Parents Teach Motivation Or Is It A Lost Cause?

I believe that parents CAN influence their kids to be more motivated. Keep in mind that every child is born with a different degree of motivational instinct. Some kids just seem to be naturally more motivated than others – there can even be a wide difference between siblings – but parents can have a big impact with their child in this area.

For the child that needs some parental encouragement to grow that “ambition muscle,” it WILL take a lot of TIME and PATIENCE. Even then, your child may never get to the point of creating a fortune 500 company by the time they are 20 or inventing the next technological wonder, but they will have grown in some degree with regard to their initiative to take on goals and interests.

Below, I have outlined some tips to help you encourage motivation in your child. Because I believe it is most effective for parents to use different techniques at different ages, I have broken it down into tips for young kids and tips for teenagers.


How To Encourage Your Young Child To Be More Motivated

Laying a good foundation is important in instilling ambition and motivation in all kids. Start early in encouraging this behavior from your child and be consistent.

Modeling stick-to-itiveness in front of your child is a great teaching moment – talk through difficult projects in front of our child and discuss how you overcame the temptation of wanting to give up on the project when it became difficult.

Above all, demonstrate for your child what a job well done looks like and how it makes you feel. Point out the rewards for completing the project – both extrinsic and intrinsic.

Here are some other suggestions for this age group:

  • Start early
  • Model determination in front of your child
  • Don’t expect perfection at this age
  • Teach and practice delayed gratification
  • Use verbal and nonverbal praise/reinforcement with your child’s successes
  • Teach your child to be proud of themselves
  • Keep child’s developmental appropriateness in mind by starting with one or two goals/chores and then add more responsibility as they get older
  • Talk through difficult projects in front of your child and include an explanation of how you overcame obstacles during the project
  • Allow your child to care for a pet – this allows them to learn what it is like to care for another living thing

Additionally, take a look at your own attitude about chores – are you too meticulous and perfectionistic about chores/tasks, or, conversely, do you tend to procrastinate and/or delegate your chores to someone else? Remember that your actions speak louder than words with kids.


How To Encourage Your Teenager To Be More Motivated

If the foundation for motivation has not been addressed before your child becomes a teenager, then it becomes a little harder to instill this skill in your child. With teenagers, the key to teaching motivation is setting up expectations and consequences and being consistent with the plan.

Teenagers will give you some attitude when establishing a new chore/responsibility routine, but this is normal and temporary. In psychology, this is what we call the extinction burst – when the unwanted behavior presents itself in an exaggerated fashion right before that unwanted behavior goes away.

Basically, your child’s attitude regarding the new responsibility expectations will get worse before they give in to the new routine because they are hoping that if they are annoying enough, you will revert back to the old routine with no responsibilities. Makes sense, right?

It is very important during the teenage years to help your child understand how learning to be responsible NOW helps them in the FUTURE. It is really hard for teenagers to always understand the long-term benefits to performing household chores or saving for an expensive luxury item. Help your child connect the dots that being in charge of taking out the trash every week will teach them to be dependable, hard-working adults in the future.

Here are some tips for encouraging motivation in teenagers:

  • Create clear expectations regarding chores/responsibilities
  • Be consistent and routine with these expectations
  • Create consequences for not meeting these expectations and make these consequences clear
  • Help you child connect the overall reason why people are responsible for chores, how families work together to help the household run, and how learning responsibility now helps them to have a great future later
  • Use both verbal and nonverbal praise/reinforcement for your child’s successes
  • Teach your child to be proud of themselves for a job well done
  • Some kids just don’t know how to complete a task – start out with detailed instructions and then transition to giving the overall goal and ask your child how to create the in between steps needed to complete the task. Be ok if their way isn’t your way but it still completes the task.
  • Let your kid fail sometimes and then require them to do it over – this is a good life skill (but scary for the parent) 

How To DISCOURAGE Motivation In Your Child

Creating an environment that encourages motivation is not always easy – especially if you have a child that is not naturally motivated. Oftentimes, parents unintentionally create an environment that actually discourages motivated kids.

Creating a discouraging environment might include:

  • Completing a task/chore yourself because it is easier on you
  • Giving up requiring your child to complete a task because you don’t want to explain the same technique to them AGAIN
  • Being too critical of the job that your child completes
  • Not acknowledging a job well done by your child.

You might be able to think of other ways you might be unintentionally creating an environment where your child might have given up trying to be more ambitious or responsible. If you have identified that you might be falling into this ineffective pattern, then go about creating a more positive environment – it is never too late to change.


The Take Home Message

The take home message here is that some kids are not born very motivated to do hard work. It doesn’t make them bad kids and it certainly doesn’t mean that they can’t change.

As a parent, you are a major factor in modeling motivation, creating a home environment that supports and encourages ambition for passions and interests, and should be setting up clear expectations and consequences for chores/responsibilities.

I am not going to lie to you – this can be a lot of work on your part, but the long-term payoffs are important. If your child can learn to take on goals and tasks now, then they are more likely to do this when they are adults.

On Friday, I am going to share with you my own struggles with motivating my kids. This is an area where I have had to put a lot of parenting energy into. Just like no child is perfect, no parent is perfect either and I hope that by sharing my Modern Family stories with you, we all can become better parents.

To read Part 1 of this series on Motivation and Kids, CLICK HERE.

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