More on Motivation

Dear Reader,

Do you ever find that certain topics tend to come up a lot for  a while? One recent one for me is the issue of how to motivate kids to do their schoolwork. Now, thankfully, mine don’t have much of a problem with this, but I still think about it. I have a good friend whose son is just not very motivated. He has been home-schooled all along. She is not a CM-er but she is pretty flexible in her schooling. And he is a good kid, just not too enthusiastic about learning.

And I can see how in such situations, it would be very easy to resort to using outside things to motivate one’s child, money for instance or other tangible rewards. This is what the world does, after all. When he grows up and gets a job he will be paid for it and perhaps receive other motivating agents like a good performance review, praise from his boss, “employee of the month” status. So is it so wrong to seek to motivate our children in what is essentially their job in similar ways?

As I go through Charlotte Mason’s fifth volume, Formation of Character, I find that she addresses just this topic. Here is what she has to say:

“When attempts are made to stimulate people en masse, it is through their desires. They want work or play or power, money or land, and whoever plays upon any one of these desires gets the popular ear. Because this government through the desires is the easiest kind of government it is the most common, in the school as elsewhere; prizes, praise, place, success, distinction, whether in games or examinations, these are enough to keep a school going with such vigour, such eclat, that nobody is conscious of the want of other springs of action.” (p.124)

Pretty sobering, isn’t it? It sure makes me not want to be the one who first appeals to my children’s desires to motivate them. It also addresses the fact that appealing to desires, whether with tangible rewards or with praise, works. It produces the outcome we initially sought and so we think all is good. We don’t even realize what we are missing until it is too late. The problem is in the side effects. As Charlotte says:

“It is astonishing how crude may be the character, how unformed the principles, how undeveloped the affections toward country, kindred, or kind, after a successful school career; the reason being, that the principle of government through the desires has left these things out of count. Nor is this the whole; the successful schoolboy too often develops into a person, devoid of intelligent curiosity, who hates reading, and shirks the labour of thought.” (p.125)

But it is one thing to say that money or grades are not proper motivations; we must still ask how we motivate. I think it is easier with younger children. They have a natural curiosity, love of stories, and desire to learn. Our goal with them is only to keep that alive, not to smother it. But what of the older child whose interest has already been lost?

You’ll have to take everything I say with a grain of salt since I have never had a child in this situation and successfully conquered it. But I do tend to think that every child must have an interest or talent somewhere. The key is to discover and nurture it. And often I imagine other things, meaning more traditional school subjects, must be let go for a while until the interest is stimulated. Perhaps a more unschool-y mentality that follows the child’s interests is recommended for a while. I also tend to think that lots of screen time only helps smother real interests. Charlotte’s idea of masterly inactivity is valuable here. Kids often need to be left to fend for themselves  for a while before they will do the work of entertaining themselves.

I do not think that every part of schoolwork needs to be loved and done with enthusiasm. It is not our job to make everything palatable and acceptable to our children. It is also important to learn to do one’s duty, even when it is not enjoyable. But I tend to think that in most cases one can be persuaded to make it through the spelling exercises if there is something more intriguing, perhaps a living history book, around the corner.

I also think that in a lot of cases we undervalue children’s true talents. If your child is an artist, why not let them pursue that? You can show them how math and geometry will aid them in their art (Fibonacci numbers, anyone?). You can incorporate a lot of art into history. You can use science to show them the art and beauty of creation.

What do you think? Have you had an unmotivated child? How did you handle it?


5 responses to this post.

  1. My son went through a spat of low motivation last year which caused me to take a step back from what we were doing to reassess the situation, to find out what was the cause for his low level of motivation. We gradually moved towards an interest-led approach in our homeschool, which has improved things a lot. I’ve blogged about that period here:

    I wonder whether the term ‘low motivation’ that adults see in children may be due to a mismatch between the adult’s expectation and that of the child, for example the child may be very motivated to learn something that an adult doesn’t think is important or worthy of their time, and vice versa.


    • Thanks for the links. I read your posts and some of the links they lead to. I guess one thing I wonder about is what about kids that aren’t “gifted” (not a label I like anyway) in any way but still just aren’t motivated. I do think though that a lot of motivation issues coudl be solved by parents just being willing to let their child learn in alternative ways.


  2. […] have blogged a lot about motivation lately, and I wonder if this matter of attentiveness and giving interesting materials is not such […]


  3. […] In preparation for the next Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival, I have been reading the fifth chapter of Charlotte’s sixth book, a chapter entitled “The Sacredness of Personality.” I was drawn in from the very beginning of this chapter because it has as a topic a subject I also have been considering a lot this year. that of motivation (see this earlier post or this one). […]


  4. […] it comes up in conversations frequently, and I know I have blogged on it many times before (see here and here). A book I read recently, Scott Kaufman’s book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s