Motivation - an internal desire or need that energizes one's life and gives it direction - is important to success. Many believe that it is more important than natural abilities or aptitudes. At some point in your child's development, you will probably feel that your child lacks sufficient motivation. Most parents face this worry. Different "signs" may trigger this concern - your child seems turned off by everything, complains excessively about school or home life, drops out of activities, or acts particularly bored with routine and non-routine events. Your concern comes from a sincere interest in your child's future and well-being. That is why it is so important not to react in ways that might actually make the problem worse.

Simply put, encouragement, not criticism, inspires children. When a parent criticizes a child, even constructively, that child is often discouraged and less motivated to do what is expected. On the other hand, by noticing and encouraging good behavior, a parent will see more of that good behavior. For example, complimenting your child for completing her homework before going out to play will encourage the same behavior to be repeated. "Thank you for picking up your room" will produce better results than "How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your room?"

Criticism can sink into a harmful cycle when the parent criticizes in a humiliating, hurtful way. "You are being really stupid!" "What is the matter with you?" "Don't you ever learn?" The child internalizes the criticism, loses confidence, becomes angry and alienated, and becomes less motivated to behave. The parent criticizes, and the child reacts. Both parent and child begin to believe that the child is all of those negative things.

On the other hand, parents who look for their children's good behaviors are far less likely to find faults. The children feel good about themselves, their behaviors improve, the improvements are recognized, and their motivation increases. All motivational problems are not simply solved and can require professional help. But parents can make a huge impact by focusing on and supporting the good in their children.

Motivating college-age students

When your children make it to college, you hope that they know why they are there. Unfortunately, many are there for the wrong reasons. They know they SHOULD go to college, their families expect it, their friends are all going, or college is a good way to put off the inevitable, finding a job. They have not made their college choices or plans because of their career goals. When the course demands get tough, they may not have the motivation to sustain the kind of effort needed to succeed.

Lack of motivation in college will result in low grades, dropped courses, and dropping out. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education tracked the high school class of 1992 over an eight year period. Only two-thirds of the students who had attended a four-year college at any time had earned a bachelor's degree by December 2000. Although 90 percent of students begin their second year, one-third of these students had finished their first year of college with "low academic momentum." That meant they had earned less than 20 credits, had habitually withdrawn or repeated coursework, and were in the lowest one-fifth percentile academically. These students will be the most likely to drop out.

Motivation in college is important early - in freshman and sophomore years. Most students who quit leave in their second year. This suggests that you as a parent need to stay well informed about their progress during that time. Continue to set high expectations. Know what courses they are taking. Encourage them to explore new fields and encourage new interests. Ask them how they are doing after mid-terms. If they are having trouble in a class, suggest that they talk to their professor or instructor. Make sure they get help with academic, social, and personal problems. Most importantly, help them connect why they are there with their personal and career goals. If they find that they need a break from school to set these goals, help them structure it so they learn more about themselves and can return to school at a later time with purpose.