Over the course of working with many boys I’ve learned a lot about how to effectively help them. I’ve also seen my fair share of unhelpful behavior. Because it so often follows a few recurring patterns, I’d like to share some of the commonest, tried-and-true methods for demotivating your son. Some of them may surprise you.
- Tell him how smart he is. My son has about 15 soccer trophies sitting on his shelf—most earned just for showing up to practice. Since Nathaniel Brandon kicked off the self-esteem movement in 1969 with his book The Psychology of Self-Esteem, we have done everything we can to help our kids feel good about themselves. But as it turns out, constantly telling them how great they are might not be very good for them—and telling them how smart they are is particularly detrimental. Carol Dweck’s research (which we’ll hear more about later) showed that telling kids they are good at something actually discourages them from trying harder at it; telling kids how smart they are gives them an expectation they must live up to. Smart becomes their prized identity, one they are loathe to lose by taking risks and failing. It also reinforces the notion that intelligence is a character trait, something that is intrinsic to them as a person and that they have no control over. Better to praise them for working hard.
- Do the dishes for him. We are not doing our kids any favors when we do all of their chores because they are “too busy” with homework, sports, and other activities. Treating them like royalty whose only job is to bring honor to the family gives them a very unrealistic message about life—that they are special. A patient of mine who is in college and struggling to figure out how he will make his way in life recently said: “My generation has been told ‘I am special.’ If I just keep being me, good things are going to happen.” When we take the garbage out for them, they do not rush, with gratitude, to their studies. Rather, they draw the conclusion, “I am above all of that drudgery.” Successful people are those who are willing and able to do things that they really do not want to do.
- Ask him if he is ok. Constantly asking if your son needs anything or is doing his homework sends the message that you are more worried about him than he is, and that you do not think he can really do the work. These check-ins will not keep him on track—he will just get better at knowing when you are coming and quicker at minimizing whatever website he is looking at that is distracting him from his homework.
- Let him off easy from a consequence. The author Wendy Mogul has written that it is easier for parents to feed, shelter, and clothe their children than it is for them to set effective limits. But your son needs consequences. Not enforcing consequences sends the message that your threats are empty and he does not have to change. It also reinforces the notion, yet again, that he is special, and that the rules of the world do not apply to him.
- Make “average” unacceptable. In a culture that places so much emphasis on success at any cost, being average has become unacceptable. By overlooking the good in sight of the perfect, we saddle our children with unrealistic expectations. If you have ever been to a track meet, you will hear coaches talk a lot more about their runners’ “personal best” than about who won the meet. True, somebody did win, but there is also a team of runners who are working to improve, and needs encouragement.
- Assume he is lazy. There are many aspects to consider in the phenomenon that presents as teenage apathy: brain development, adolescent psychology, parenting styles, parental hopes and expectations, family dynamics, and sometimes learning disabilities or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. One factor that’s not on the list, no matter how often it’s invoked, is laziness. In fact, a parental diagnosis of laziness is great news to a teenager, since there is no cure for being lazy and being called lazy is an insult—an insult that renders your teen even more oppositional than he already is. The bad news, however, is that seeing your son this way will only make the problem worse.