Tony’s nineteen and drifting aimlessly through life. He graduated from high school a year ago, although it was a major battle between Tony and his parents to get him to put in enough effort to pass all his classes. He’s still living at home and nothing his parents have tried has worked to get him motivated to make something of his life.
Tony is a good guy with lots of friends who he hangs out with until the wee hours of the morning, which explains why he flunked out of the community college. His parents are good people – hardworking and educated – who have a hard time understanding why their unemployed son has failed to launch into being a responsible young adult.
There is hope for young people like Tony who have struggled to be successful in school. A BBC report on studies of self-made millionaires in Briton revealed that a significant majority of them had poor academic records. Nevertheless they had gone on to do well as entrepreneurs, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, and even Prime Minister.
The key to turning their life around was that they found something to do that interested them, which sparked energy to work for something they wanted. Psychologists call this “intrinsic motivation,” which researchers Richard Ryan and Kirk Brown describe as “activities that are done for the interest and enjoyment they provide.” They found that it’s the highest form of motivation and predicts psychological well-being as well as financial success.
Motivation is like a pyramid with intrinsic motivation at the pinnacle, underneath of which is a bigger group of people who work for external rewards. Below that level is an even larger segment of the population who are motivated to work to please others, with the base of the pyramid consisting of those who are – for the most part – unmotivated.
How did Tony end up at the bottom of the stack when his parents provided a good example of working hard to enjoy the rewards of having a nice paycheck? Think of the pyramid and note that one level up from unmotivated is working to please others. Throughout his early elementary school experiences Tony got good grades primarily because it pleased his parents.
However, when he got into middle school the peer group became more important than his parents. Since Tony had learned to be a people pleaser he was highly motivated to gain acceptance and approval from other kids his age. Hence he devoted most of his time and attention to fitting in with his friends, which resulted in his grades declining. That meant he didn’t match up well with the group who were doing well academically, so the kids who were performing marginally became his peer group.
By the time Tony got into high school he had come to see himself as a class clown who gained recognition by amusing the other kids in class. Needless to say this aggravated the teachers, and Tony (perhaps accurately) came to believe that his teachers didn’t like him. What he couldn’t see was that his actions were alienating the teachers, cutting him off from positive reinforcement from adults who would have rewarded his being responsible. Instead Tony became caught up in a downward spiral of needing to entertain the other kids in class in order to get positive responses from a peer group of other poor performers.
If you have a tween or teen who’s struggling in school, remember that it’s possible for young people to turn their life around. There are several ways to facilitate this change. First, stop allowing your frustration, anger, and disappointment to completely contaminate your relationship with your child. Reinforce what’s good about them.
In particular, change your focus from grades and test scores to your child’s natural talents, interests, and abilities. Minimize criticisms of their bad behavior and maximize catching them doing things right. Point out the strengths that they’re using when they’re doing well.
To identify your teens’ top character strengths, strongly encourage them to take a short, free online survey to identify their best qualities. Go to www.authentichappiness.com and click on the VIA Strength Survey for Children if they’re under 18. Older adolescents can take the adult version of the VIA Character Strengths Test.
It would also be a good idea for you to take the test so you can learn to more consistently apply your top traits when dealing with your child. If they see you’re improving, it will show them that it’s possible to change.