How to Deal with an Unmotivated Boy

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Photo by Sergio Cabeza via Flickr

Do you have an unmotivated boy? You’re not alone. If fact, according to the comments I hear from parents of boys all over the world, motivated boys are the aberration, especially in the tween and teen years. It’s far more common to hear things like:

“My son is 15. He is completely unmotivated. He hates school and he hates to do any kind of work.”

“My son isn’t interested in anything.”

“All he wants to do is play video games.”

The parents are desperate for a solution, while their sons feign indifference — which can be infuriating for parents! It’s extremely difficult to see your full-of-potential son simply sit there, apparently apathetic about his future. He’s only a few short years from independence, and yet, he can’t be bothered to get off the couch or do his homework.

Breathe.

Yelling at your son won’t help; it will only make things worse. Teens and tweens are supposed to be pulling away from their parents, so if you dig in and aggressively attempt to direct your son, you can be pretty sure that he’ll move in the opposite direction instead. In other words: your insistence that he DO something may actually be fueling his inactivity.

The Tough Truth About Motivation

You cannot create motivation for your son (or anyone else). True motivation has to come from within. External motivation — do this or you can’t do that — wears thin after awhile, and almost never leads to permanent changes in behavior.

Unwittingly, many of us have spent years squashing our son’s motivation. Think about it: The boy asks to use a power tool, and we say no. He asks to walk to the store with his friends, and we say no. Teachers, parents and society spend a lot of time telling our boys to sit down, shut up and do what they’re told, and very little time asking them, “What do you want to do? How can we help you?”

By the tween years, many boys have given up. They’ve been shut down and told no in so many different ways, for so many years, that they don’t even know what they want anymore. They’ve tuned out the internal whisperings of their souls for so long, and so effectively, that their inner voice is nearly silent.

Consider these excerpts from a recent NPR article, The Key to Raising a Happy Child:

For much of the past half-century, children, adolescents and young adults in the U.S. have been saying they feel as though their lives are increasingly out of their control. At the same time, rates of anxiety and depression have risen steadily. What’s the fix? Feeling in control…

The self-driven child is driven by internal motivation as opposed to other people’s expectations, rewards, insecurity or fear. To be self-driven, kids need to have a sense of control over their lives and are energetic about directing their lives in the direction they want to go…

The best way to develop a self-motivated, older-adolescent adult is to encourage their participation in their pastimes — in the stuff they love.”

If you want a motivated son, you have to give him the space to discover what he wants out of life –– and you have to accept the fact that his desires may not align with your desires for him. You may want your son to buckle down and spend more time studying; he might want to devote his free time to fishing or Fortnite. And while it’s perfectly acceptable for you, as the parent, to set some basic ground rules and expectations, it’s not OK to demonize his interests. In fact, if you have an unmotivated tween or teen, it’s essential that you respect your son’s interests and give him time, space and the tools he needs to pursue those interests. (You do not need to buy him a fishing boat or Playstation 4. However, you can and should support his efforts to get those things, if he considers them essential.)

You can’t motivate your son, but you can create conditions that allow him to uncover and pursue his interests and passions. Then, he can rediscover his own curiosity and internal drive.

It’s Never Too Late, But…

It is absolutely, 100% possible to help your tween or teen son recover this motivation. But it’s extraordinarily difficult because you’ll need to unravel a lifetime’s worth of habits. Both you and he will need to learn new ways of relating and behaving, and as anyone who has ever tried to break a habit knows, that’s tough.

It’s a lot more productive (and fun!) to support your boy’s drive from day one, no matter how outlandish your son’s interests and endeavors may seem to you. In her gorgeous WIRED essay, One Young Boy’s Magnificent Obsession with Fans, “boy mom” Cathy Alter writes about her son’s obsession with electricity and fans:

LEO’S FASCINATION WAS, it turned out, not with the gods but with the suction power of a Dyson—or, more generally, anything brought to life by energy. Once I figured that out, I spent hours with him, carrying around a desk lamp from outlet to outlet throughout our apartment lobby. Each time the light came on, it illuminated his ecstatic face, and often a slender thread of spittle that hung from his mouth. After Karl came home with a bag of extension cords, Leo linked them together and proceeded to wrap our lobby in one uninterrupted cord like a Christo installation.

One muggy summer day, after we’d been kicked out of the lobby, we stopped by a neighborhood consignment shop. The owner had set up a battalion of oscillating fans on just about every available surface.

…Within a matter of weeks, Leo was imploring me to visit the fan sections in other stores—Best Buy, Goodwill, the seasonal aisle at CVS. If parenting is an exercise in patience, these outings were the Ironman.

…These days, for a good hour, I often let Leo, who is now 6, watch video after YouTube video. (What else can I do? Nothing else captivates him like this.) The videos explain everything from quantum mechanics (Minutephysics) to, um, how to build fans (big shout-out here to Navin Khambhala’s channel, Mr. NK)… I also know that when I drop him off each day at school, he isn’t learning how to make an auto-feed soldering iron in any of his activity centers. And then I feel grateful to YouTube.

THAT is how you build motivation and confidence. You support and encourage your boy’s interests, even when you don’t know where said interests will lead. You look for and find ways to fuel his passion, and you begin making what’s important to him  a priority in our your lives. You begin to change your role in your child’s life; you become a facilitator, rather than a general or dictator. You adopt the attitude expressed by William Stixrud, co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control over Their Lives:

I start with the assumption that kids have a brain in their head and they want their lives to work. They want to do well. That’s why we want to change the energy, so the energy is coming from the kids seeking help from us rather than us trying to boss the kid.

You can’t go back in time. You can’t undo what has already been done. You can, however, begin again. You can apologize to your child for inadvertently interfering in his life. You can let him know that you’d like to help him accomplish his goals in life, whatever those may be, and you can make good on that promise by supporting his emerging interests.

You can also encourage and support other parents of boys. When you see another mom buying her son — an avid backyard gymnast, deep into the #gtramp subculture — a top-notch trampoline for his birthday, and allowing said son to start an Instagram account so he can connect with others who share his interests, celebrate her; don’t shame her! (The comments on this mom’s New York Times article about her son’s first weekend on Instragram were brutal.) When you see teen boys working with power tools and creating backyard foundries, praise their initiative and show an interest in their creations, rather than lecturing them about safety. Go out of the way to tell their parents that they’re doing a good job; it’s not an easy thing to allow our boys freedom and independence in a risk-adverse culture!

Together, we can empower and motivate our boys.

Need more help? Jennifer’s book, The First-Time Mom’s Guide to Raising Boys: A Guide to Your Son’s Formative Years, address motivation & how to find and fuel your son’s interests. 

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