The unambitious kid

How to foster your child’s inner drive to succeed

While one of my sons is always outside honing his goalie skills, the other would take a Spiderman comic over a goal any day. In fact, motivating him to do his best — whether it’s practising guitar or getting a jump-start on his history assignment — takes a lot of nagging. Of course, I would prefer to spend my time fostering my child’s own inner drive to succeed. But how?

Watch for sparks

“Kids aren’t born ambitious,” says Annabelle Fell, a registered social worker in Toronto. As most grow, they start setting goals for themselves. But first, kids have to figure out what they enjoy doing most. To help your child develop interests, expose her to lots of options. Hand her a list of 10 activities per year, and let her choose three, Fell suggests. Then stand back and watch which ones light her up. “When you see her getting excited about sketching or cartwheels, that’s when you step in with encouragement,” she says.

Foster feeling good

You cultivate ambition by connecting the activity with the happy feeling your child receives from it. When your son shows off his piano scales, or finally beats you at chess, tell him, “Wow, you really worked for that!” and ask how it feels to have mastered it, Fell says. “You want your child to hear his inner voice that says: This is something I’m good at and that feels great!”

She points out that our culture is so focused on extrinsic motivators — rewards for A’s, gifts for making the team — that it’s hard for kids to find intrinsic motivation, succeeding simply because it feels good.

On the flip side, it’s important to flag areas where your child is struggling because you don’t want her clapping the French book shut the second studying doesn’t feel good. “Knowing her challenges will help your child learn when she has to push harder for that feeling of accomplishment,” Fell says. The harder she works to reach a level of proficiency, the bigger the pride payoff when she does.

To help your child tackle challenges, cheer her on, but also empathize with her feelings of frustration during the learning process. And don’t forget to praise her for trying — whether or not she succeeds, Fell says. “Failure is an important life lesson that teaches kids the value of resilience.”

Stay balanced

Your own experience of success is also instructive. Explain to your kids how reaching a goal (passing a driving test, landing a job) made you feel, Fell says. But keep in mind that not everyone has the same level of ambition, and that doesn’t mean those with less are lazy. Some kids are late bloomers or need more nudging because they are less competitive by temperament.

Plus, too much ambition can be harmful, Fell says. “If your child spends all day achieving, with no time to just be, he’s in danger of feeling a void inside.” It could also be a sign of stress, so make sure your kids enjoy a healthy balance of work and play.

And keep your own success monitor in check. “Instead of judging your child, boost his confidence by asking what he’d like to do more of,” Fell says. “Drawing out his interests tells your child: ‘Hey, you may look like me, but you are your own amazing person with your own talents and that’s cool.’”

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