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A desire to study and achieve must come from within
It is very common to hear parents and teachers mourn the loss of achievement or potential achievement of a child at school. Typically, the scenario played out is that parents and/or teachers, observe that the student is underachieving. That is, there is a gap between the child’s perceived ability compared to their performance.
There are different approaches taken to address this issue. Well-meaning adults, seeking to help a child achieve to their highest standard, often swing between encouragement and anger. The first option applied is normally to encourage. “You can do it”, “Give it a go” and “Just do your best”, are common phrases intended to encourage children. Failing that, encouragement can move to cajoling with phrases like “You should try harder”, “Why don’t you work harder?” or “Can’t you see how well you could do?”
Encouragement rarely works when a child has no interest or desire in achieving a particular thing. External encouragement, overtly reasoned to act as a motivator is in fact counterproductive. Encouragement can actually give the opposite message to that intended. A parent saying, “Try” may be heard as, “You are not good enough, you should be something other than what you are or how you feel. Be like I want you to be…” Good intentions by way of encouragement may serve the parent’s need to feel relevant or useful but can actually be very destructive. It should be clear that exasperation and anger would equally be counterproductive.
Feelings of exasperation can lead an adult to make intended or unintended comparisons with a sibling. This can be overt or subtle. For example, a parent or teacher can compare a person with an older sibling: “You are not like…”, or with a younger sibling, “Can’t you be like…”, or through encouragement that is overt or excessive when one child achieves academically. Audible and demonstrative praise of the high achieving child can make the other child feel invisible or simply not good enough.
Other parents resort to a mixture of excessive structure and control. Timetables are drawn up, organised study plans made and rigorous structures adhered to. Here the idea is to imbibe or embed a culture of study, a work ethic committed to learning and achievement. However, such structures generally cause stress to both parents and the child and, though some learning takes place, it may be associated with tension, stress and anxiety. Performance will tend to become the focus rather than the pleasure of learning and discovery.
This can also occur when parents and teachers focus exclusively on outcomes rather than effort.
A driver who called himself an ex-convict once gave me a lift in his taxi. He had been in and out of gaol on many occasions and now, in his late thirties, he had decided it was time to have a more productive life. He looked at how he had made poor choices and he saw that his choices were creating outcomes that were quite wasteful and painful. The significant thing was his realisation about the need for effort to create success.
No one else had been able to change him. Following this discussion, I interviewed a number of people who had turned failure into success. Whilst some mentioned a significant person, most said they changed when they had their own inner realisation that they needed to or wanted to. Whilst in one or two cases a person said something that resonated with them, or asked a question that prompted an inner line of inquiry, nothing could change them except themselves. That is, it was their inner reflection and response to that ‘chance factor’ that lead to a desire for personal growth or a resetting of the goals.
If parents cannot expect encouragement or pressure to work – what will make a child want success? How can a person learn to obtain self-esteem and inspiration from doing well, if they actually do not want to do well? How do we ignite within them a desire to learn and to want to grow?
It seems that the answer lies within. In my experience, and in studies of those who have reformed a dysfunctional life, learning is likely to commence when a person (of any age) desires to learn. Motivation to learn can only arise from an inner desire to want to learn. So, the crucial thing here is to engage interest in learning so that it becomes its own reward. If that cannot be done, then imbibing a love of goal setting can lead to a life focused on personal bests and a sense of reward for having high personal standards in all things done.