It was August 2007, and I was in a corner coaching my 8-year-old son. We were inside the Modern Sports Arena in Karlsruhe, Germany. Sam was in front of hundreds of people cheering, fighting for his first “World Kickboxing Title” in the under 25KG weight class.
Our journey getting to this point was a twisty road of arguments, tantrums, and growth for me and my son, Sam. On reflection, there were some motivational nuggets that, fortunately, I was able to apply in time to help our relationship grow positively.
From our journey, I’m going to share three key takeaways in motivating your child.
As a martial arts coach, I want to help my students improve their skills, techniques, and mindset. There’s a popular strategy for doing this. When you see a mistake in a student, correct it and help the student build good habits through repetition.
This sounds logical and straight forward—so does good parenting, but the approach is majorly flawed. Publicly correcting someone is the lowest form of human emotion—shame. What we are doing is publicly shaming the student and putting them into a negative mindset.
At home, we are privately shaming our kids and putting them into a defensive mindset. Our first strategy has to be the polar opposite.
1. Constantly Catch Your Child Doing Something Right
This reinforces the positive behavior you want to see. It does not mean you should never correct your child because there’s always going to be a need for this.
Think of your child as a bank account. If you constantly catch them in the moment of doing great things, you make a deposit. Every time you correct them, you make a withdrawal. It’s easier to swallow the withdrawals if there’s already a healthy balance in your kid’s emotional account.
If Sam had already heard “great effort on the pads” or “that kick was 100% accurate”, he was much happier hearing “keep your hand up when punching” if this was a key coaching point.
Tony Robbins has a great quote for this:
Energy flows where attention goes.
Once you start looking for the great stuff your kids are doing, you’ll start to see more great stuff and this builds positive energy while interacting with them.
Being a parent is hard, but being their coach as well makes the relationship a lot more complicated. You have two hats to wear. So, on the days that they don’t feel like training, it can hit you two times in the face.
The secret here is to empower your child with choices, not ultimatums.
2. Choices, Not Ultimatums
Ultimatums come so very naturally to us when we’re tired. “Sam, grab your kit bag and get in the car or you’re banned from Nintendo for a week” is so easy to say when they do not want to train.
We are parents. We know what’s best for them, so we use ultimatums to reinforce our control, right? However, it’s usually our inner monkey voice that speaks when we give these ultimatums, so we’re not really in control at any point.
Instead, I’ll take a deep breath, clear my head, and say “Sam, we’re off training in 15 minutes. Do you want to get your kit in the car now or finish your game first?” It’s a subtle difference but with a choice like this, you’re taking “no” out of the equation and empowering your child to make a responsible decision.
You probably think that using your authority keeps you in control, but it’s a thin illusion. Nobody appreciates being told to stop what they are doing to do something else. It discounts their opinions as worthless, and they’ll resent your instruction.
The chore may get done, but you can feel the negative energy, and the task is never performed in a way that would make you feel satisfied.
There’s an opportunity to implement this approach all the time, and it builds a healthy relationship.
“Would you like broccoli or cauliflower?” “Would you prefer to do your homework on Saturday or Sunday?”
When coaching my son Sam, I was getting much better results from applying this strategy. It could be as straightforward as “Do you want to work on your punching or kicking today?” or “Do you want to train on Saturday or Sunday this week?”
This could make all the difference to how the session started, with lots of positive energy right from the go.
The last tip is the hardest one to swallow as a parent. It’s all about us.
3. Monkey See, Monkey Do!
Kids mimic their parents—from how they talk to how they behave and act. We have a much bigger influence on our kids on what we tell them to do. They’ll copy our attitudes, mannerisms, and so much more. This means that what motivates our children involves what we do as parents.
At first, we might think this is great. The big “but” is that they do not copy the characteristics that we want them to. They seem to focus on our bad ones and magnify them by a factor of 10.
I’m always learning how to be a better parent and coach. Just because I’ve been driving a car for over 25 years does not mean that I’m good at it. Many drivers spent a few months learning to drive, then repeat the same driving mistakes each year ongoing. If you’ve ever tried to teach your child to drive, you’ll understand how many changes there are from when you learned and how many mistakes you make that your kids are very happy to point out as well.
Telling them to ”do what I say and not what I do” is not going to win that discussion. If you want your child to be more confident. What have you done lately that demonstrates your confidence?
If you want your child to grow their self-esteem. Do you complain about wrinkles, waistline, or something else consistently within earshot? If you want your child to be a world champion in kickboxing, what are you doing to demonstrate excellence to your child?
The point here is that we all have room for improvement. You’re reading this article, so you care about developing as a parent.
Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, says that kids “may not always do what we say, but they will always, eventually, do what we do.” So, most of what children learn about how to behave is from what we model. That’s why regardless of what you consciously teach your child, they will learn more from what they live with.
My challenge to you is to list 3 ways you can be a better role model for your kids and take action to follow this plan.
4. Bonus Tip: How to Supercharge These 3 Tips
There is one old school method of positive motivation that is much debated by scientists and parents: the power of extrinsic motivation or rewards.
Every parent has their opinion on this. Do any of these sound familiar?
- “You can have your dessert when you sit still and finish your dinner.” Did the child sit still?
- “You can have a happy meal after we visit the doctor for your booster”
- “You can play on your console if you do your homework”
The idea makes sense—reward a less appealing task with a more pleasurable experience. This is known as extrinsic motivation.
The problem with this approach is what Vanessa LoBue Ph.D. refers to as the “what will you give me for it” or “what’s in it for me?” attitude that we’ll develop in our kids.
But there is a subtle difference that makes all the difference that came out of the study made by Lepper, R. M., Greene. D., Nisbett. E. R. This was a study on preschool-aged children using a fun drawing activity. This is an activity that kids would be happy to perform without being instructed to do so.
Kids were encouraged to play with markers. One group was told they would receive rewards like gold certificates if they played with the markers. The other group was not told about any rewards, but some of the children still received them as a surprise for their efforts.
The outcome was that the children expecting the reward was significantly less motivated in performing the task than the children who were not told about the rewards or received one as a surprise.
Within this study lays the magic ingredient for motivating our kids to learn and grow positively. Promising rewards can actually reduce the joy of performing a task or intrinsic motivation. But like the kids in the study, receiving an unexpected reward can positively reinforce the behaviors that we want to see.
When you combine this with the above strategies. You’ll supercharge the results.
For me, when coaching my son. He was always going to get a happy meal after training. I’m a cool dad and like to treat my kids, but the timing of the treat makes all the difference.
When I stopped him immediately after performing a skill well that we’ve been working on and said:
“Sam, that punch was world-class. It was like the Bruce Lee Back Fist in ‘Enter the Dragon,’ and it helped me fall in love with martial arts all over again”. “Your choice—happy meal or subway, after class. You’ve earned it”.
I saw a smile on my child’s face that is priceless.
Here, I’m combing tip number 1—constantly catch your child doing something right with an extrinsic reward. This is a powerful parenting tool. You just need to find a good compliment and match a good reward with the right timing.
When it came to Sam’s last round in the world championships, fighting for a World Title in the under 25kg category, he did not win the Gold Medal. However, we both learned more about good parenting and Sam has some great lessons to pass on when it’s his time to raise kids of his own.
Someone once told me that when you read a good book over again, you don’t find anything new in the book—you just find something in you that you did not notice before.
Just taking the time to read an article like this will help you look deep within yourself and learn how to motivate your child positively.
It’s now 18 years since I started this journey with Sam to become a world champion. He never quite managed to win the title but took national champion and an international bronze medal for kickboxing. But by the age of 21, he is leaving university with ‘no debt,’ owning his first house and a pet axolotl called ‘Boba’.
If you can successfully find the right approach to positively motivate your child, it will be transformational.
More Tips on Motivating Your Child
Featured photo credit: Mike Fox via unsplash.com