Motivating Preteens

With so many distractions it’s not an easy sell

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Another typical Sunday afternoon. Your 10-year-old son has spent much of the weekend playing games on his Wii or the family computer, and your attempts to get him to clean up his room and sweep the kitchen have been mostly met with “maybe later.” Now he’s stretched out on the couch in the family room watching TV with a couple of his friends.

“Have you done your homework?” you ask.

He rolls his eyes and clicks the remote — not to turn off the TV, but to change another channel.

What happened to the kid who was excited about starting school, enthusiastic about any activity you suggested and full of boundless energy? Why is it so hard to get him motivated now? He doesn’t want to do homework or household chores, practise piano or even play sports. He’s turning into a couch potato — at 10. And you know it’s not just your son because your friends with kids the same age have the same complaints.
Parent coach Barbara Desmarais of Vancouver says parents need to keep in mind what it means to be a preteen in 2009. “Preteens are on the fence between childhood and the lure of the teenage world. Peer influences are starting to get strong, more so for some kids than for others, and preteens are bombarded with advertising in ways that previous generations didn’t experience.”

It’s not just the overload of advertising, it’s all that stuff the ads are for. When you were a kid, you had a few TV channels, a Walkman and maybe some primitive video games to keep you electronically entertained. Now your preteen may be accessing online gaming, IMing friends, listening to his iPod, playing with more than one gaming system or clicking through hundreds of channels. No wonder practising the piano or mastering long division doesn’t seem appealing. Yes, there have always been challenges in keeping kids motivated, but today the list of distractions is longer.
Calgary parent educator Judy Arnall, author of Discipline Without Distress, has a 10-year-old son who often needs some motivating nudges himself. She offers these tips:

Motivating tips

• Remember that you have the most power before kids turn on the computer or TV or get involved in some other activity. It’s much harder to drag them away once they’re watching the show. So if you need your child to brush her teeth or complete a chore, insist it gets taken care of now, before the TV is turned on.

• Don’t underestimate the power of solid routines. If your kids know that they always do homework before supper, or that chores are done first, and they can then have an hour on the computer, you won’t have to fight about it every day.

• Give them choices. Make a list of chores to be done and ask everyone in the family to sign up for two or three — and the last person to put her name down is likely to get the least desirable options. If there’s homework to be done, let them pick their preferred time to do it — that might be right after school for one kid, and just before bed for another. You offer to support their decisions by making sure the computer or TV is turned off when it’s time to work.

While those tips may make it sound as though motivation is all about getting chores and homework done, it’s not. Your goal is to help your child become a well-rounded adult, and part of that is exploring interests and developing skills. Parents can help their children develop other interests, Desmarais says, by looking for areas where they show some natural ability or a spark of enthusiasm, and acknowledging and supporting that. If you’d like your son to be more physically active, for example, don’t try to push him into hockey because you loved it as a kid; it may be bowling or martial arts that appeal to him.

This seems to be the secret with kids who are highly motivated: They work hard because they are doing something they’re interested in and enthusiastic about, and that comes from inside, not from external pressures. As a parent, the most you may be able to do is offer your child as many options as you can.

Offering or forcing

And the key is offering, not forcing. “Try to invite your child into an activity rather than ordering him to do something,” Desmarais adds. Another strategy is to do things together: “Preteens will play a board game with their parents and have a great time,” she points out. Or you can work on cleaning the garage or washing the dishes together, rather than sending him off to do it alone.

Does it help to talk to your preteen about the long-term benefits of things like homework and piano practice? Probably not, says Arnall, unless there’s a reasonably short-term goal that your child has taken on as his own. The link between doing homework now and getting a better job as an adult is too remote to mean much to the average 10-year-old.

If a common distraction, such as online gaming, seems to be the biggest issue, Arnall suggests parents write actual contracts with their children. “This is something the parents and child negotiate together. You could have an actual time limit, or the contract could say something like ‘no computer games until you’ve practised the clarinet for half an hour.’ Everyone signs it and it gets posted on the wall.” Next time your child balks, you just point to the contract wall and remind her what she agreed to.

Also keep in mind that fitting in with peers is “the greatest need of this age group,” says Desmarais. “Trying to completely forbid some of these activities will backfire on you because you’ll make your child too different from his peers and he’ll resent it. That doesn’t mean you can’t set limits. But remember that gaming and watching the popular TV shows are social activities too.”

How not to motivate your preteen

Want to get your preteen off the couch or involved in some activity? Parent coach Barbara Desmarais says these approaches are generally unproductive:

• Lecturing or nagging about chores, homework, etc.
• Saying “When I was your age, I did three hours of chores every day plus two hours of homework…”
• Demanding instant compliance or ordering your child to do something
• Being a poor role model by spending many hours watching TV or surfing the Net yourself
• Comparing one child to another

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