Wondering how you can help your child reach their potential? Carean L. Oh, Managing Director of Writers Studio, shares her insights and top tips.
Words by Carean L. Oh
We know that our parents may not be the most inspiring, especially in this new generation, where external influences are the strongest. How then can new parents still stay true to their parenting code when it comes to motivating children to achieve more? Is there a ‘failproof’ method that can work for us?
It is not uncommon to make the iPhone or iPad the next friend of the family. Whenever our children feel unmotivated, we will naturally turn to the object of fantasy: a device that holds the answer to most solutions. As if turning our mobile devices into virtual assistants is not enough, it has also become (if we can admit) a babysitter or a reward dispenser.
With the pandemic, gone are the days of “Let’s ace the exams and mum will take you to Europe”. We can already identify that external rewards are only transient, and it may turn our kids into an obedient one within a week or so, but they will not turn them into Yale graduates without the longer term desire to achieve more. The truth is that we see children with potential achieving less. Yet, there are also a number of high-achieving children who are acutely-stressed and lack motivation. Here are 5 enduring tips that can help your child achieve more academically and holistically.
1. Remove the stress element
One of the best ways to set your child on the real road to success is to relinquish a little control over their lives. It can be tiring to always be in control and get upset each time your child falls short of your expectations, but the last thing we should do is react in front of our child. When a child fails to deliver, unchecked emotions send the message that we value results over composure; that it is appropriate to fume and be unforgiving towards the child. We send the wrong signal that results in it far outweighing the learning experience.
A healthy child needs a healthy brain. What we call “stress” always has a different effect on the child. We might think the child is merely mismanaging his time, but to your child, it is very real and could be something very different.
Transport ourselves back in time when we fear exams or failure. That effect is magnified in the increasingly competitive schooling environment today. Thriving under our current priorities is impossible as a normal child should always have a choice to make. Unremitting achievement pressure is always going to do your child more harm by sending the message: Your life and happiness are in my control. This will surely bring an end to self-directed joy.
Remember: In trying too hard to control your child, you are unwittingly creating a narrow version of success which will undermine your child far into adulthood.
2. Promote self-drive
Take stock of your role as a parent. Have you become your child’s boss or manager? Try the role of a consultant. Don’t pass this suggestion off as idealistic. By changing hats once in a while, you will help bend your child towards the sunlight of learning. As you sit across the table from where your child is pondering over a PSLE Math problem, you must have wondered: I didn’t face as much stress as a kid back then.
I am sure the early years of your child’s life were more fun and enjoyable. Remember the times when you both spent time doing something just for fun and it wasn’t a writing test? It was just a small writing activity. No grades, no fear of falling below average. That story might have been most creative.
As your child grows, love compels us to care. We care about everything from homework to friendships. We set targets that they have to hit. If goals are set by parents, children feel less committed. The native potential in children is best drawn out when we do more as parents by being more collaborative and approachable.
Direct the child to create their goals, talk about how to reach them, and give a nudge when they deviate from their intended paths. Ask: “What will you do to get there?”, “What if you don’t”? No child would fail to notice a caring parent. And a self-driven attitude will last a lifetime.
Remember: The quickest way to a performance nose-dive is too much control.
3. Rethink rewards
Think about the times your child did something just to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Did their achievement really come from the heart? Do you often wonder why their marks in a school subject fluctuate? If you dangle a carrot before the reluctant child and manage to get cooperation, you’ll need a lot of carrots. How sustainable is that?
Before you tear your head in frustration and wonder if anyone could give you the 99th solution to turn your child into an achiever, observe your child’s body language. How happy is your child when attempting the next assignment or studying for that next test? We often contribute to their unhappiness by pointing out mistakes first. We mention ‘exams’, ‘results’ and make unfair comparisons with their best friends. How then can we expect a child to be happy with something as inanimate and innocuous as an assignment?
The best reward is accomplishment. And this involves learning something from an assignment. Let’s just imagine an English composition. If you are constantly setting targets for a creative writing piece, it reminds your child that good writing depends on the number of marks awarded. Instead, try to focus on qualitative benchmarks. Comment on how interesting the story could be. Point out gaps that leave question marks in your head. Laugh at how often a point has been repeated. When there is improvement, strike off the problem on a checklist. Children are very observant and it does not take rocket science to figure out how to make them feel noticed, appreciated and motivated.
Remember: When children feel good about their abilities, they are more passionate towards their goals and have a stronger sense of personal commitment (even when they face difficulties).
4. Practice makes perfect
No doubt a very cliche phrase: practice most always makes perfect. Shallow practice is how many children study. We are in a society of quick fixes and Googled solutions. When your child has the potential to achieve more, it is also the best time to provide the right support and a launch pad to develop them to their fullest potential.
No one became a successful lawyer, doctor or athlete without deliberate practice. When these role models talk about success, they don’t mention talent. People mistakenly think that talent or luck is the most likely factor that makes someone achieve more than others.
Mathematics is one subject where deep practice increases memory and impression of a topic. The more questions that are completed correctly, the more it motivates children to engage in further practices. Likewise, we can teach our children to practice goal setting, and ways to achieve them.
Instead of reviewing mistakes and giving scores during deliberate practice sessions, give them an incentive for good ‘workings’, ‘explanations’ to questions and being careful in their answers. Not only are we developing the right cognitive capacities but also cultivating the right attitude to learning.
Remember: Placing your child in the stretch zone with deep practice helps them reach their personal best.
5. Imagine where we want to be
When we continue to progress our lives in a certain direction, we will reach a certain end-goal. The thing is a slight change in our trajectory can lead to huge differences in the outcomes we get in life. This is no secret.
In school, children are already exposed to projects that teach them how to plan, prepare and shape their future. Some kids have already developed a ‘dreamer’ mentality. Some believe in exciting, high paying jobs in the future. Others look no further than being the best in class or doing better in their next exam.
The sooner children develop foresight into their future, the more affected they may be when they fall short of achievements. For this ‘foresight’ to be developed faster, parents have to play a bigger role. Children may lack the maturity to tell the mileage to their goals. It helps to point out role models and share how they got there with your child. Take language acquisition for example. In the absence of regular reading and writing from a young age, it is hard for a child to catch up on building these literary skills later. Your child may not have realised it yet (nor should we blame them) but teaching them to identify the milestones that have to be achieved to reach their end goal will help them achieve more.
Remember: Acting now almost always reaches a future outcome faster.
Before you think that pushing your children to achieve more is about twisting their arms, imagine a power struggle. You cannot motivate a child to care. Your role is to inspire and influence.
Words by Carean L. Oh, Managing Director of Writers Studio, a learning centre focused on improving the creative writing skills of primary and secondary students.