When I got an e-mail about a book called “Bright Kids Who Couldn’t Care Less: How to Rekindle Your Child’s Motivation,” I groaned. Haven’t our kids been through enough? Can’t we move on from hyper-programming our children and turning them into mini-CEOs who begin building a resume at age 5?
Then I actually talked to the author, Ellen Braaten, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and realized I’d misjudged the book entirely. Braaten’s point is that our kids are so scheduled, so busy, that they lack actual motivation and inspiration. The joy has been sucked out of their lives in the name of checking off the boxes.
Her book couldn’t come at a better time for me: My 12-year-old has entered the dreaded existential phase of wondering why he has to go to school at all. It’s boring. He’s too busy. There’s no down time; no recess. He asked me why he needed to learn percentages in math, and … I made up something about it being useful at the grocery store. What’s it all for? But then I thought: Well, middle school isn’t supposed to be fun, you lazy lout. Wandering the locker-lined hallways of the perpetually doomed, zits and braces and hormones surging, is a rite of passage. John Hughes movies would not exist otherwise. Sometimes life is just hard.
Where’s the balance? How much effort should I spend trying to make my kid happy, and how much should I just tell him to suck it up and finish his sad math worksheet? I wondered if I was trying to compensate in the wrong ways. I fight drudgery with sign-ups: basketball, football, baseball, guitar. He wants to do all these things — or so he says — but then he comes home exhausted and retreats into the dark world of YouTube for hours.
With all that on my mind, I talked to Braaten. If your kid seems stuck in perpetual ennui — or is suffering from big emotions due to being tired, busy, or overloaded — please read this book, out next month. Here’s an excerpt from our interview.
A friend and I were just saying that, when we were in middle school, it was a foregone conclusion that it wasn’t going to be fun. We do not remember anyone worrying that a teacher wasn’t exciting or catering to our social-emotional needs. With my son, I feel like: Everything has to be fun, and he needs to be energized, motivated, and happy. What do you make of that?
I think you’re exactly right. This is practically a topic of another book because it’s so true. It spills over into the work world, too. … There is this idea out there that life is supposed to be fun. But living and work is hard most of the time. I think in prior generations, we just knew that school was going to be hard. In between, you’ll find areas of pleasure. But now, it’s sort of the opposite.
I write a lot about kids who are over-scheduled and pushed: Do they really need to be more motivated? Maybe there’s a different definition.
This question made me realize that we’ve completely confounded motivation and busy-ness, and they’re two separate things. Motivated people are often busy. But that busy-ness does not make someone more motivated. In fact, it’s the opposite. Motivation is really about why we’re doing something. We’re motivated because we want to do something, get better at something, learn something, get paid for something.
In the past few decades, we’ve thought that keeping our kids busier is going to make them motivated. They have nothing really to do with each other. If you put a lot of stuff in their calendar, it may actually serve for them to be less motivated.
How did we get here?
Other people have written great books about the college process. We’ve all sort of bought into this idea that in order to get into a good college, you have to be good at all of these things. And then that starts earlier and earlier. Parents feel this pressure that everybody’s got to be successful. … We have this desire to make our kids something that they’re not supposed to be, which is mini-adults.
In high school, they not only have to have so many extracurricular activities, but they also have to volunteer, and they also have to make sure they take ‘this’ kind of class. And if they’re not an AP student, well: How many activities can we get that will support their application? Even though that’s for high school students, it trickles down. Parents of third-graders have said to me: ‘Someday I’d like [my child] to get a baseball scholarship.’ There’s a lot of years between third grade and 12th grade, and they’re probably not going to get a baseball scholarship. But that’s how parents think from the very beginning.
College admissions are so much harder now, though. Are parents wrong? It’s what colleges seem to want, even if it’s not healthy for kids. Does that lead to a bigger conundrum?
Admission rates are so low because people are applying to a gazillion places. They’re just getting so many more applications, and a lot of applications that aren’t really even appropriate, on the common app. Most college admissions people would say they’re looking for a kid with a spark, not necessarily a kid with lots of stuff. … They’re really more interested in a kid that’s got that snap of motivation, which is really what we’re talking about — not that overscheduled kid but the kid who persists with intention, who does things independently, who tries new things, who knows what makes them happy. I think that’s what missing.
I like how you say that it’s OK to tell your kid that they’re not good at something and can quit. This seems like the opposite of 10 or 20 years ago, when everyone got a sticker. What’s the new way of thinking?
I think one of the things we have to keep in mind is that if a child’s not good at something, they know it as well as we know it. What we’ve traditionally told kids is: ‘I think you’re great.’ … We try to pump them up. We don’t want our kids to suffer. We just don’t want them to seem unhappy. I don’t know how to say this without trashing my profession: It’s great to have increased awareness of mental health, but we tend to think about any sort of anxiety as being a disorder, and it’s not. And so I think we’ve kept them a little bit too precious for fear that they’re going to develop a full-blown disorder.
With ‘every kid gets a medal,’ I think all of that started [because] we don’t want our kids to suffer. But if you see a child struggling at something, the best thing to do is start with: ‘How do you think you are at basketball? How do you feel things are going?’ And if they say: ‘I’m terrible at basketball,’ it’s OK to say: ‘For other kids, it’s kind of their thing. I really love watching you play, and I really admire that you stuck with it. Is it something you want to keep going with?’ Sometimes kids will say, ‘I just love it. I don’t care that I’m not that good.’ And other kids will say, ‘I hate it. I’d rather be doing something else.’ You can use this as a way of helping your child find something else that gives them pleasure and keeps them motivated.
When our kids aren’t good at something, we can use that experience to teach them about who they are. The goal should really be motivation, to help them figure out what gives them pleasure: What am I good at? What do I want to do? What do I want to be? What kind of person do I want to become? We want to see an increased level of independence and increased competence, and we want those two things to go together. When we feel competent, we can feel more independent.
Kids complain about drudgery. When is apathy a sign of something worrisome?
Chronic apathy, problems in school and in social relationships, eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little: All of those physical symptoms are cause for concern. I also think that this is a good time in life to talk with other parents to get a sense of if they’re having the same exact issues, so you can feel a little bit more secure.
What will your book tell us that no other book has told us yet?
Even though it’s not in the title, I feel like the book itself teaches parents how to love the child they have, not the child they wish they had. We’re motivated when we’re surrounded by people who love us and let us develop in ways that were meant to be.
It’s about putting pleasure back in goal-setting, as opposed to goals being: I’m going to take this many AP classes. What gives us pleasure? What do I want in my life that’s going to make me happier? Oftentimes, this means letting our kids be the person they are, as opposed to doing the things we want them to do.
Interview was edited and condensed.