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The Motivation Breakdown: Inspiring Your Child to Independence: An Interview with Stacey Wolking

February 20–24, 2017   |   Vol. 129, Week 14

Is your child struggling to stay motivated and focused? Then don’t miss today’s Homeschool Heartbeat program, as our guest Stacey Wolking reveals the biggest mistakes you might not know you’re making.

“Kids desperately want to be taken seriously, so validate their feelings and opinions.”—Stacey Wolking

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Got questions about what subject you should teach your preschooler? Looking for tips on teaching math to your middle schooler? We’ve got you covered. Follow the link to discover a world of guidance and resources from HSLDA’s own educational consultants, Stacey Wolking and Vicki Bentley.

Is your child struggling to stay motivated and focused? Then don’t miss today’s Homeschool Heartbeat, as our guest Stacey Wolking reveals the biggest mistakes you might not know you’re making.

Mike Smith: I’m joined today by Stacey Wolking. She’s a former homeschooling mom and one of HSLDA’s educational consultants. Stacey, it’s great to have you with us today!

Stacey Wolking: Thanks Mike! It’s really great to be here.

The motivation breakdown [0:26]

Mike: Now Stacey, this week we’re going to talk about motivating your children to succeed. So when parents come to you and say, “I don’t know what to do—my children just don’t want to learn,” what’s the first thing you tell them?

Stacey: Well Mike, a lot depends on their age. Kids up to about 6 or 7 have a nearly unquenchable curiosity. So if they aren’t motivated to learn, then we’ve possibly squashed that with a bit too much structure or not engaging them enough. Now if they’re a bit older—say up to fifth grade—we can often get them excited about learning by adding in some music or games or activities. I love lyrical learning and audio memory. Besides enhancing their memory, the cheesy songs will get you all laughing together.

Now if they’re older, we want to get them invested by letting them make some choices. Make a point of asking for their input as they come with their own goals and plan of action.

Mike: Stacey, in your experience, what are some things that can cause a real lack of motivation in children?

Stacey: Well, it’s totally natural that parents sometimes get overwhelmed by the emotional demands of little ones. But we need to take advantage of this early window of curiosity by really engaging with them. And that takes time.

Answering their many questions is good, but on the other hand we need to teach them the skills and the desire to figure things out for themselves. We can do this by responding to their questions with a question, which will help them develop their powers of observation and critical thinking skills.

Now if kids are older and uncooperative, it’s often because they are not feeling heard or part of the decision-making. They can get frustrated when they have no say in the matter. So the key here is to slow down and purpose to engage with your children of all ages.

Cultivating independence [2:03]

Mike: Stacey, how can parents create a home environment that fosters self-motivation and independence in their children?

Stacey: When they are young, give them their own to-do list. They will love the sense of accomplishment that comes with checking things off that list just as much as we do. When they’re a bit older, say third or fourth grade, with your assistance, let them create their own to-do list. We want them to be challenged but not feel loaded down with too much work. So let’s help them find that right balance. When your students see the big picture by having their own list, they will be more inclined to figure things out themselves and move on without us.

Also, be sure to capitalize on your children’s interest and help them see the value of what they’re learning by applying it in real life. Eliminate distractions and establish and consistently enforce clear rules and their expected progress. Teach them how to learn efficiently by staying focused, breaking a task down into small steps, and applying good study practices. And don’t assume kids know how to be organized. We need to teach them how to organize their time and their schoolwork.

And lastly, make it worth their while. Incentives do motivate kids! Years ago, my kids were so motivated to get their chores and schoolwork done by 3pm so they could watch Wishbone—it was a dog’s reenactment of classic literature. They loved it so much, I’m not even sure they realized that it was educational. Our goal is to create a stimulating environment, yet not a demanding one. This will motivate them to take responsibility and work independently.

Encouragement vs. constructive criticism [3:27]

Mike: Well Stacey, what roles do encouragement and constructive criticism play in motivating children, and how can parents know when to you one and not the other?

Stacey: Well personally, I found this to be very tricky. Even with the best of intentions, my constructive criticism was not always taken very well. I think we’ve all heard the saying: For every one criticism, our children need to hear 10 positives. Well obviously, that can be really tough to do. But the truth is, young kids are naturally motivated to please their parents. So let’s be specific with our praise as well as give them hope for their mistakes. When they mess up, you could say, “Well that didn’t turn out so well, did it?” or “What could you try different next time?” Our kids will feel empowered to try new things—and do them well—when we create circumstances for them to be successful. Also when we praise their efforts, not just their successes, we make it okay to make mistakes. The truth is, we’re all motivated by praise, aren’t we?

Another key issue is respect. I’ve found it helpful to ask myself, “Would I talk to my friend this way?” Everyone wants to be treated with respect—especially kids. Nothing conveys our love and respect better than asking them how they feel and what they think. Kids desperately want to be taken seriously, so validate their feelings and opinions. Encourage your students to ask questions and express new ideas without fear of ridicule or correction. And if you can’t agree with them, encourage them with “Well, I hadn’t thought of it that way,” or “That’s an interesting way of looking at it.”

And lastly, if you’re discussing a problem, ask them to come up with a solution. Then we need to be good listeners and be flexible and willing to try a new approach.

Mentality matters [5:03]

Mike: Stacey, what are some of the biggest pitfalls parents can fall into when trying to motivate their children—and how can they avoid them?

Stacey: More than anything, I would say it’s the way we talk to our kids. Sadly, we often get into the ‘us-the-parents versus them-the-kids’ mode, when instead our kids need to feel confident that we’re on their team and will help them accomplish their greatest goals and desires. Most kids naturally tend to be optimistic idealists, and we seasoned and sometimes weary parents can unwittingly steal their spark with a bit too much of a reality check, when instead we should be encouraging them to try new things. If it doesn’t work out, it’s okay—there will always be something to learn from their mistake.

I’ve also found kids react strongly to ‘do as I say, not as I do’ and ‘say what you mean and mean what you say.’ These may be old clichés, but as kids get older, they become very sensitive to what they perceive as a parent’s inconsistency.

Another big issue is making sure your home is a safe and trusted environment where your kids can discuss and wrestle with thoughts and ideas without fear of being laughed at or ignored—including from their siblings. Let them know that the family always has each other’s backs. You could have regular family meetings where the kids feel safe to bring up anything. I know of families who have a ‘weekly blessing time,’ where each person says something they appreciate about each family member. This can do wonders for creating family unity, which in turn motivates kids.

The key to motivation [6:30]

Mike: Stacey, what is the most important advice you have for parents who are trying to get their children motivated and working hard?

Stacey: Well we don’t mean to, but I often see parents holding their kids back—and especially their firstborns. It is often hard for parents to see that their children are growing up, which unwittingly sends the message that we don’t have confidence in them. Have you ever had the experience of being away from your children for a few days and coming back, you think, “Whoa! When did that happen? When did they get so big?!” For some reason, we tend to continue to see them as little and often forget to give them more challenges and more responsibilities as they grow up. So periodically, we need to step back and get a fresh perspective. They truly crave to be seen as mature individuals worthy of our respect. So let’s communicate our trust and confidence in them.

They also really need to know that you think they are capable. Not only should we let them make some choices, but also allow them to take some risk as they will often learn from natural consequences. By letting them take some risk, we convey that we believe they have what it takes to make it in the world. That confidence will create initiative and motivate them. Encourage them to do things that challenge and stretch them. This helps them feel grown up, and when we give them lots of opportunities to prove themselves, it lets them know that we believe in them and see them as capable. When they are confident, they will be motivated.

Mike: Well Stacey, it’s been a real blessing having you on the program this week. And thank you so much for sharing your insights and experiences with us. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Stacey WolkingPhoto of Stacey

Stacey’s childhood dream of becoming a teacher was fulfilled by homeschooling her two sons and two daughters. She and her husband, Daryl, graduated their youngest child in 2013 after more than 20 years of homeschooling using a variety of teaching styles and curriculums. All of their children went on to college, have successful careers, are married, and (bonus!) plan to homeschool. Stacey is enjoying her growing family, especially her four grandbabies—the first of many, Lord willing!

In addition to serving on the HSLDA Toddlers To Tweens and High School Consultant teams, Stacey fills her “homeschool retirement years” with tutoring students in her favorite subjects (English, reading, and writing), offering professional home and office organizing services, serving as co-coordinator of a local homeschool support group, and pursuing her passion for natural health and nutrition.

Stacey has focused much of her research and writing on the needs of little ones and is greatly concerned about the ever-increasing cultural pressure to push young children into formal education too soon.

It is Stacey’s greatest joy to encourage moms in homeschooling, homemaking, and loving their husbands and children well. She loves to share her heart and enthusiasm with homeschool and MOPS organizations.

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