Motivating Teens to Achieve

By Lynn Cowell
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Teen girl learning guitar in classroom
Monkey Business Images/Thinkstock
The root of a person's motivation lies in his or her passion . . . and the same is true for a teen.

Being a towering 5 feet 10 inches as a sixth-grader was not easy for my daughter Mariah. Everyone assumed she would be great in sports, especially as she continued to grow during her teen years. “Do you play basketball?” was a question she heard repeatedly. Born into an athletic family, Mariah started both basketball and softball at a young age, but she never seemed to develop a passion for either sport. She had the “goods,” but lacked the interest. As a parent I saw her potential and wondered if this wasn’t her area or if she merely wasn’t motivated.

I’ve heard it said that it’s normal for teens to be unmotivated. Although that attitude may be “normal,” it’s not always what parents want for their kids. We want to see our kids flourish as they make the most of the fleeting teen years. We want them to be successful. But we first need to evaluate what success looks like for our teens.

What is success 

Is success defined by a scholarship to our son’s or daughter’s favorite college? Possibly. But in God’s eyes, success often goes beyond accomplishments. Our kids find success when they use and enjoy their God-given gifts and talents to the best of their ability and for God’s purposes. Our teens need to understand that the Lord’s blessing is found in being faithful with what they have been given, be it much or be it little in the world’s estimation.

So how do we motivate our teens to flourish and succeed? The root of motivation lies in passion. What is your child passionate about? When my son, Zach, was in sixth grade, I signed him up to play rugby. My purpose was simply to keep him active and in shape for football. What I couldn’t predict was the fact that rugby would become his passion.

Zach loved the positive coaching and brotherhood found with his rugby team. The constant movement and interaction among the players met his need to release those high testosterone levels. Was this what we had expected or even wanted? Not really. Zach’s dad, granddad and great-granddad were all football players. But Zach is not. He has found his passion and plays it out on the field as a rugger.

Encourage their passion

Like my son, maybe your child is showing signs that his interests are different than yours. Ask yourself, What does my teen get excited about? Is it video games? Maybe he has a desire for adventure and simply needs you to show him that real adventure can be found in activities such as rock climbing, whitewater rafting and snowboarding. Or consider a science or math olympiad to challenge his mind. When we connect a kid’s passion to his activities, we begin to see self-motivation develop.

Our next goal as parents is to help our teens see how their passions can be used for a greater purpose. For example, I could ask my son, “Have you ever considered teaching rugby to younger students?” When we encourage our teens to use their skills to help others, they can see beyond themselves to experience the joy that comes from giving.

When they experience success

Teens often feel unsure of themselves and of their future. Those feelings of uncertainty can produce fear. By helping our teens experience success, their fear is often alleviated. They gain a sense of confidence in understanding that success in one area can encourage success elsewhere.

From this, they may see that hard work and persistence pay off. In addition to letting them experience small successes in their own lives, we can communicate this concept to our kids by sharing our own stories of success. When their success is partnered with words of acceptance, approval and hope from a parent, our teens acquire the strength and courage to keep heading in the right direction.

As Mariah’s desire to play sports waned, she found a passion for music. She specifically asked to participate in a traveling choir, as well as take guitar, piano and voice lessons — and we paid attention. We took our cues from what excited her and began to invest in her passions. Last summer, Mariah traveled to Italy, and at just 15 years old, she sang in cathedrals and churches, including the Vatican.

With a son now thriving on the rugby field and a daughter who has found her voice, we’re privileged to watch as their self-esteem and confidence soar. Motivation has become a natural result of finding their passions, and we’re convinced that teens flourish most when they find and enjoy their God-given gifts and talents for His purposes.

Copyright © 2010 by Lynn Cowell. Used by permission.


Understand How to Respect and Love your Son Well

Why doesn’t my son listen to me? Have you ever asked that question? The truth is, how you see your son and talk to him has a significant effect on how he thinks and acts. That’s why we want to help you. In fact, we’ve created a free five-part video series called “Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect” that will help you understand how showing respect, rather than shaming and badgering, will serve to motivate and guide your son.
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