How to Get Your Kid to (Not) Try Harder

When I was growing up, dinner was my least favorite time of day. 

First, there were the five very explicit rules.

  • You will be in your seat, quiet and ready to eat at 5 pm.
  • You will not complain or ask for something else.
  • No dessert if you are not done when the adults are.
  • You will eat everything that is put on your plate.
  • You will not leave the table until your plate is empty.

Second, there were the five reasons for the rules.

  • We parents have worked hard today while all you had to do was go to school.
  • Children in poor countries have to beg for food as good as this.
  • Dessert is a privilege that you have to earn.
  • Food is expensive and you will not waste it.
  • As long as you live in our house you will do what we say.

As a child, I was not exactly what you would call an adventurous eater.  And none of my parents’ approaches helped me want to try new things because I associated eating, which could have been pleasurable, with shame. I associated family mealtime, which could have been about sharing and connecting, with having no voice or choices. 

Worse than all of that was that I had to eat things that I did not like. Super Yuck. Every day. 

For years, I spent long nights at the table putting off the inevitable. My parents tried all sorts of shaming and punishments, including cold dinner for breakfast. They even told me that no one else would ever want to have dinner with me. Perhaps this was a combination of their own upbringing, the latest approaches in parenting, or some kind of misplaced fear. Whatever it was, it did not work.

Maybe you are thinking, “Why so much push back? Why didn’t you just disguise the foods you didn’t like? Why didn’t you just hide the mushy peas in your napkin? Why didn’t you just wash them down with your drink? Why didn’t you just learn to like the food you were served?”

What you are saying is this: Why didn’t I try harder? This is exactly the kind of thinking that leads kids to hate–and avoid–school work.

Let me explain.

During the COVID-19 quarantine I met a new adolescent client for the first time. This student did not know that I already had an extensive amount of file information about their case. They were a poster child for what psychologists who study procrastination call “short-term gain.”

My objective for our first session was to gently extract some potentially painful information from the student, without any direct confrontation. 

“So how is quarantine working out for you?”

“Oh, there’s nothing to do. My sleep schedule is off and school keeps sending work.  Like I’m going to do any of that.”

“Is not doing the work a choice?”  

“I’m making it one.” (I liked this kid already.)

“Sure. I understand. Do you have your work in a portal? Some people I meet with have one of those.”

“Yeah. But I never go in there. The system sends email to my parents if something is actually important. They yell at me and…yeah.”

“Can you show me what your portal is like?”

“If you want to see it. But I don’t even know the password.”

Fast forward to session three, and the student had recovered their password, shown me the dashboard of missing work, and discovered that there were 54 missing assignments noted in that portal. Even in my world, where one of the reasons I see students is because they are not doing their work, this was a lot of work to complete, especially since more work was still being assigned every day and there were six weeks left of school.

You might be filled with questions at this point. To review:

  • Why so much push back? Why didn’t you just disguise the foods you didn’t like? 
  • What didn’t you just hide the mushy peas in your napkin? 
  • Why didn’t you just wash them down with your drink? 
  • Why didn’t you just learn to like the food you were served?

A little translation and your questions might sound like this:

  • Why did you get so far behind? 
  • Why don’t you just do the work and get it over with?
  • Why can’t you just do the work like everyone else?
  • Don’t you realize that you could fail and never get into a good college?

My parents might have asked these questions, too.

Part of my work as a Learning Specialist includes listening for the stories kids are telling that give them permission (not) to act. Psychologists have long known that emotions motivate behaviors. Anger, for example, has a tendency to make people want to hold back, push back or even fight.  As I demonstrated at the dinner table, people will go to great lengths to win, especially when their rights have been violated. (A great connection, by the way, is studying conflict: the Age of Revolutions, the Civil War, or more recently, Black Lives Matter…) 

Listen to the stories below that the student is telling about having their rights violated. 

I should not have to do work that I hate.

  • This work will take too long. 
  • It’s all just busywork because no one knows what to do with us.
  • It says this is optional. Only stupid people waste their time with optional work.
  • This work is a waste of my time since I will never need it.
  • I wanted to be in Art, not Computer Science. If I was in Art I wouldn’t have this homework.
  • Kids mostly don’t get sick with Coronavirus. Nobody I know is sick. It’s stupid to close school.
  • I shouldn’t have to do work when there are no grades.
  • It says that this work won’t change the grade from earlier in the term so why do it?

These thoughts are just begging for short-term gain. This gives relief from righteous indignation, but of course it potentially creates a future-cost that the student cannot fully imagine. 

Adults (maybe you) are oh-so-willing to jump in to help here with catastrophic thinking. Remember “No one will want to have dinner with you”? Think: “You’ll never graduate. You won’t go to college. No one will want to hire you.” 

Remember all that missing work? Within five weeks, the 54 assignments and all of the other incoming ones were completed. This happened before the actual deadline, and the student received credit for the semester. It happened without threats, or rules, or shaming.

(And by the way, I grew up to be an adventurous eater.)

Let’s do this.


About the author

Sherri Fisher, MEd, MAPP, executive coach and learning specialist, uncovers client motivation and focus for perseverance. She has decades of successful experience working with students, parents, and professionals who face learning, attention, and executive function challenges at school, home, and work.

Related Posts