Since so many kids grow up demotivated by the conviction that adults 1) don’t expect much from them and 2) seem unlikely to do do much that truly helps them, our course is almost obvious.
Give them something to do. Just because there are no cows to milk doesn’t mean we can’t give our children legitimate work to do—work that keeps us up late or gets us up early. And there’s plenty of that to go around—am I right, ladies? Somehow all those labor-saving devices we introduced since the 50s yielded longer work weeks and a superabundance of household duties. Why in the name of all that’s efficient would we fail to train and empower younger citizens to help with that work? If we let the darlings earn their keep, they’ll love us for it.
But we have to give them the right stuff to do. And the right stuff means helping kids learn to accomplish age-appropriate tasks.
Take Science Fairs. We all know Roscoe didn’t make that cold fusion power converter. In fact, by your red-rimmed eyes, we can tell you stayed up all night working on it yourself. Either that or you have a nasty case of pinkeye. Why? To launch his career in the hard sciences? So everyone who knows you’re Roscoe’s mom will be proud of you? Who are we kidding?
Over-achieving is generally meaningless—more about appearances than function. Our children need to perform meaningful work. I mean they really need that. And meaningful work is not that hard to find. It’s right in our own homes and requires a minimal investment of brain capital to develop. If you’re not sure where to begin, start with the allowance.
Stop giving allowances. Really. I mean, what’s that about? Does someone give you an allowance just for getting out of bed in the morning? And even if someone does; is that a good thing?
No need to go crazy; there are things your child needs and I don’t recommend doling out french fries or undergarments one at a time. But why confuse needs with wants? Why mix your obligation to look after your child’s needs with a compulsion to hand out discretionary income?
But, once the needs are met—assuming you can manage that and assuming you can agree on a working definition of need—give your child an economic education by letting her create value in exchange for cash.
Start simple and work up.
When Kate approached high school, we struck a deal: She would work summer jobs, but during the school year her job was to work on a whopping financial aid package for college. In exchange we agreed to provide her with x dollars each month to spend at her discretion. Anything she earned during the summer became part of her personal stash. When she started driving, we invested in a funky old toaster which we gassed, maintained, then sold the day after she left for college (this was a workable solution for us, given where we lived and the work we were doing—not because we owed her a car).
Kate’s capacity to make that her job during high school was predicated on a childhood pattern of contributing to our family. We didn’t pay her for doing the dishes; that’s a family job everybody has to do. But we did create opportunities for enterprise, like when she transferred the contents of my Rolodex into my first electronic address book. And we tied her understanding of the regular dollars we gave her each month to the value of her participation with us in making the household work smoothly. That included washing dishes, picking up after the dog, vacuuming, cooking—things we all do to make our life together work (okay, I don’t cook, I warm, but you get the point). Along the way, Kate learned to budget her money because there wasn’t an unlimited pool. That’s Economic Education 101: work generates income, which spends easier than it accumulates.
And did I mention Kate was able to attend the private college of her choice with a financial aid package so good she couldn’t have gone to a state school for much less? I know some people think our choice to pay the rest of Kate’s college costs was ill-advised. They’re welcome to that opinion; it was our intentional choice and fulfilled the agreement we made as a family while she was still a schoolgirl. I’m grateful we were able to do it and exceedingly pleased with the outcome.
Communicate appropriate expectations. Create an environment where expectations for outcomes and processes are clear and kids have a fighting chance at success (which is very empowering by the way).
I’m more in favor of learning than bringing home good grades. I think learning is a pretty good predictor of decent grades; I’m less sold on grades as a predictor of learning. Communicating that core expectation and reinforcing it over time created a clear motivation for Kate. She put in the hard work necessary to learn and the grades took care of themselves.
When Kate got her driver’s license we had a brief conversation about accidents. “You’re going to have an accident,” I told her. “Sooner or later it will happen because, no matter how hard you try, accidents happen. That’s why we have a word to describe that category of experience: It was an accident.” She looked at me with only mild surprise, waiting for the punch line.“What we’re asking is that you do everything in your power to ensure that when you have that accident it’s minor. Does that seem fair?”
She thought it seemed fair enough and set about driving with such care that the tiny dent in the rear fender of the family car became a gentle reminder that, even when we’re careful, accidents happen. It you don’t count the white tailed deer than bolted out of the woods and ran into her, or the unavoidable rear wheel blowout on the the highway (that she safely handled, by the way), that little dent was the only vehicle mishap she had before I stopped paying attention when she was no longer on our insurance. I felt free to stop paying attention because by then she was in the habit of driving carefully. That’s the value of a clear expectation concerning an outcome (relative safety) and a process (careful driving). She understood it, she embraced it, she performed superbly.
Provide appropriate training. Nobody knows anything they didn’t learn. Teach your children well. Correct instead of criticizing. Train them as you would like to be trained. There's lot's more about appropriate training elsewhere in Raising Adults.
Enough said. Unless you’ll grant just one more minute.
I hope you don’t think of me as the sort of person who throws Bible verses around indiscriminately, and I hope you’ll indulge me this one:
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
— Ephesians 6.4, TNIV
Exasperating people—and I do hope we all think of our children as people—mean provoking, irritating and infuriating them. This does not tend, ahem, to bring out the best in them. Parents, youth workers, teachers, employers and other significant adults who behave in ways that exasperate children and teenagers—by ignoring them, underestimating them, failing to train, provide clear guidelines or reasonable expectations, and then have the nerve to criticize them for underperforming—are infuriating and demotivating to the ones they pledged to protect and defend and develop and deliver whole and healthy into adulthood.
We can do something about that. If we can do something about it but simply won’t, then I think that’s just mean. In which case we’ll deserve what we get.
— from Raising Adults