Miranda is tired of nagging her preteen daughter to do her chores. Jack doesn’t know how to motivate his son to turn off the video games and tackle his schoolwork. Amanda struggles to help her sensitive kindergartener deal with his big emotions.
What do these parents have in common? They need to discover how to encourage their children to help them be more successful.
If you take a close look at the word encourage, you will notice the root word within: courage. To encourage our kids means to give them courage. Every day our children need courage to stand up for what is right and make good choices at home, at school and with their friends.
Encouragement shouldn’t be confused with discipline. Parents are called to discipline their children (Proverbs 19:18), but discipline is not the same as encouragement. Disciplining is something we do; encouraging is something we are.
I like to think of encouragement as being in the air we breathe. It’s the atmosphere of our home. It’s in the sparkle in our eyes and the lilt of our voices. When utilized properly, encouragement invites excellence and obedience. It opens doors for optimism and a positive approach to even challenging tasks and assignments. Encouragement allows for risk, a necessary quality for growth and obedience.
Wear the right hat
I used to coach a girls junior high basketball team. Like other athletes, the players on my team experienced teaching, coaching, cheering and refereeing. Over the years, I observed how each role provided its own form of encouragement and motivation — and each was vital to the success of the team.
As you seek to provide your children with motivation, you’ll be most successful when you play the role that works best for the struggles they’re having. But you’ll need to be attentive and flexible to figure it out.
Be a teacher
The best motivational strategies and all the stickers in the world won’t increase children’s short-term and long-term motivation if they’re legitimately confused and uncertain. They have to know what to do in order to be successful. And parents can be the ones to teach them.
Parents must explain and demonstrate the right ways of doing things, while also contrasting those actions with the wrong ways. For example, when someone is unkind to you, seeking revenge is the wrong way to deal with that situation (Romans 12:19).
Be a coach
Coaches break complex tasks into bite-size pieces, teach each one, and have children practice them one at a time. This helps children get started, stay on task and learn more efficiently. When I coached basketball, my girls needed to dribble well standing still before they could dribble while walking. Then they’d run. Then they’d run and dribble with another girl trying to steal the ball.
Think about the simple request: “Clean your room.” A parent who coaches will talk to his or her child about the various pieces (e.g., make your bed, put clothes where they belong, find a place for all the toys) and even walk the child through the process. As your child grows and develops, some of these processes will become more complex, but you will have established a precedent of coaching them through multistep decisions and tasks.
Be a cheerleader
Some children know what to do and how to do it, but they’re hesitant, insecure and fearful because of past failures or reactions from parents or others. They need mom and dad to be cheerleaders who stay involved during the “whole game.”
The best cheerleaders know when to change their cheers. If a football team is losing by 28 points in the fourth quarter, their cheerleaders are not yelling, “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!” They’re still there, but they’ve changed the cheer to something along the lines of finishing strong. If they didn’t, the fans, players and coaches would know the cheer squad isn’t paying attention. Cheering parents need to observe closely, know their children and cheer appropriately.
Be a referee
Sometimes parents will need to tell their children when they’re out of bounds, over the line or need to keep their hands to themselves. If parents fail to do this, children won’t know what weaknesses to work on or won’t anticipate how they might hurt others. The more effort parents put into teaching and coaching, the less they’ll need to spend on refereeing. The more you cheer appropriately, the better children will handle it when you need to blow the whistle.
As you observe your children, you can ascertain which of these four roles will encourage them in their particular circumstances. The highly emotional kindergartner may need a full-time cheerleader, while a teenager may need a coach or referee.
You may also find that your child responds better to one role than another. I prefer being coached; whereas a little bit of cheering goes a long way for me. Just remember that for a team to win a game, teaching, coaching, cheering and reffing will all need to occur at some point.
Taking the right tone
As you think about these four roles of encouragement, also consider the tone you use to communicate with them. If you’re discouraged or overwhelmed, you may be communicating in demotivating ways — such as criticism, complaining or nagging — without even realizing it.
Changing your communication style can encourage your children to want to listen to you. These three styles of communication can help:
Optimists willingly explain things, believing children will learn and improve. They expect things to go well and believe the best about their kids. Optimists see what’s right before they see what’s wrong, and they only see the negative when it’s necessary. Optimists won’t panic when children make mistakes or expect them to continue making mistakes. An optimist won’t say, “You never learn” or “How many times do I have to tell you this?”
Positive parents talk more about what they want than about the current behavior they see. For instance, if you’re frustrated that your children are constantly forgetting assignments or supplies, you might say, “Don’t forget.” This reminds them of what they’re doing wrong. Instead, you can try saying, “Be sure to remember.” You can say, “Be on time,” instead of “Don’t be late,” and “Please be quiet because your sister is napping,” instead of “I wish you would stop all that yelling.” Do you see the positive nature of these messages? A simple switch in language can convey an encouraging tone.
Indifference might be one of the most painful feelings children receive from parents and other adults. The opposite is enthusiasm, defined as “lively interest.” When your children know you’re sincerely interested in them, what they’re doing and how they’re doing, they’ll be more apt to trust you, care what you think and listen to what you have to say.
As you seek to be positive and enthusiastic, you will discover that your children will be more motivated, more likely to ask for your help and more willing to admit when they’re confused and in need of teaching or coaching.
Encouragement motivates because it’s about progress, not perfection. As you cheer on your kids by looking for the best in them and responding to their mistakes with compassion, they’ll have the courage to take healthy risks because they trust you’re on their side.
Dr. Kathy Koch is the founder of Celebrate Kids Inc. and the author of Start with the Heart.