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Motivating the unmotivated student

-GreatSchools Staff

Is your child completely uninterested in school? Refusing to even consider going to college? Are you at your wit’s end? How can you motivate the unmotivated student? Of course, as a parent, you recognize the value and importance of higher education to your child’s future. Academic apathy can be a complicated issue, however, and generally, no amount of lecturing, pleading, or threatening will change a child’s point of view. First and foremost, then, you need to understand the causes behind this lack of motivation. Once you have a better idea of the source of the problem, you can more effectively develop a strategy to help combat your child’s seeming indifference toward education.

What causes a lack of motivation?

Low self-esteem

Kids who have a poor self-image avoid activities that they deem beyond their capabilities. Even if they can actually complete a given task, these students engage in self-defeating behaviour to protect the little self-worth they do possess. For them, it is better to withhold effort or to procrastinate rather than risk trying, failing, and feeling even worse about themselves.

Lack of support at home

The home environment shapes the initial attitudes that children hold toward learning. In a home where curiosity, questions, and exploration are encouraged, children are given the message that education is worthwhile and personally satisfying. These kids are more likely to take the risks that are inherent in academically challenging pursuits. On the other hand, in a home where learning is not encouraged, children are given the message that education is of little value and that they lack the competency and ability to learn.

Low expectations in the classroom

Students mirror their teachers’ attitudes. If teachers believe that their students can learn, their students are more likely to trust in themselves and their abilities. Such teachers assign challenging, meaningful, and achievable tasks that promote motivation and link effort and success. Conversely, if teachers take the stance that they are the source of all knowledge and that their students are incompetent, their students are more apt to tune out, stop trying, and fail.


Many unmotivated students are simply responding negatively to pressure. Whether the tension is perceived or real, these kids rely on defence mechanisms to protect them from the discomfort pressure generates. Through procrastination or avoidance, these students are trying to escape from their fears of failure and inadequacy. In time, they come to accept the consequences of their behaviour, so they appear nonchalant and composed, even as the pressure they are trying to dodge mounts.

How to motivate your child

Provide an encouraging and secure home environment

Children need to feel that their parents value learning. Show your kids that academic exploration is worthwhile and education is important, and they are likely to develop similar attitudes. So sparks their curiosity about everything. Further, let your kids know that failure is often a part of the learning process, and let them fail without penalty. Kids who are not afraid to fail are more willing to accept scholastic challenges and less likely to sabotage their own academic efforts.

Use rewards carefully

Students who possess intrinsic motivation take on activities because of the feelings of enjoyment and accomplishment they evoke. Students who possess extrinsic motivation perform to gain a reward or avoid a punishment. Students with extrinsic motivation will generally put out the minimal amount of effort to complete tasks in the easiest way possible. In addition, external motivation only exists as long as there is external compensation. In other words, extrinsic motivation is likely to result in limited progress that vanishes when the reward disappears. So be discerning when offering rewards for good work.

Avoid power struggles

Realistically, you won’t be able to take on every struggle that comes along, so choose your battles wisely. Make a clear-cut list of unacceptable behaviours and resulting consequences. For instance, a failing grade in a class might result in the loss of a favourite privilege until the grade is raised. Resist the temptation to ground your child indefinitely or to take away all prized possessions. If you act reasonably and calmly, there is hope that your child will follow suit.

Build on strengths

Find an area in which your child excels and focus on it. Constant failure is certainly unmotivating, and when the primary focus is on weakness, self-esteem and motivation will undoubtedly be lowered. If your child can find success in a nonacademic setting, you can work together to determine the elements of that accomplishment. Perhaps you and your child will be able to formulate a recipe for success and apply the ingredients to the educational setting.

In conclusion, unmotivated students do want to succeed, but they are being held back by some sort of obstacle. With patience, understanding, and hard work, you can help your child find a path to academic achievement.


9 curiosity killers – and how you can cure them!

– Leslie Crawford

You want your child to be curious, right? Of course, you do! After all, curiosity is the drive to gather new information and experiences and it’s at the very heart of learning. Studies show that kids who exhibit a higher level of curiosity are at an advantage at school and beyond, benefitting socially, emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually.

Curious souls tend to exhibit a wide range of positive adaptive behaviours. They’re more likely to be open-minded, emotionally expressive, have strong coping mechanisms in daunting situations, and they’re predisposed to unconventional thinking (think: innovative problem solving).

Whether it’s your toddler furiously exploring every inch of their new world, your 5-year-old asking “Why?” about everything or your tween becoming myopically obsessed with the goings-on of their peers, curiosity is an inherently human trait. It’s fueled by dopamine, the same reward-seeking neurochemical that’s behind the desire to eat and procreate.

In younger kids, information-seeking abounds. One study found that between the ages of 2 and 5, kids ask about 40,000 questions. But as kids get older, this insatiable desire to know can lose some of its urgency.

Just as curiosity can be successfully fostered in any child it can also be squelched, often by the very well-meaning adults tasked with educating them. In fact, research shows that kids whose intrinsic curiosity is comparatively low are the ones most sensitive to social cues that inhibit or encourage exploration.

While no parent or teacher would purposely set out to thwart a child’s natural inquisitiveness, they often do so unwittingly. Curious to find out how grown-ups discourage curiosity (and conversely, how they can foster it)? Here are nine sure-fire curiosity killers and how you can avoid them.

  1. Freaking out over messes

    OMG! What happened to your kitchen? It’s been transformed into an 8-year-old’s version of a scene from Breaking Bad. There’s unidentifiable white powder all over the counters and floors, bright blue and orange fingerprints on the cabinet counters, and jars and vials overflowing with weird goo. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: this crime scene is none other than curiosity channelled into the best form of creativity. For parents who are new to slime-making, the white substance is probably cornstarch, and it’s really, really hard to clean up! The Day-Glo fingerprints are from food colouring, also a bear to remove. What’s a harried parent to do? Let them make messes! The slime-makers of today might be the scientists, engineers, inventors, and artists of the future.

  2. Choosing a school for orderliness and calm

    One would think that a neat and tidy classroom (or bedroom) is preferable to the one that invites measured chaos. Think again. What attracts people’s interest, including children, is something more complex and unpredictable. In studying what inspires creativity in classrooms, Children are most interested “in the rooms that had wild and complex things that didn’t act in predictable ways,” be it out-there art on the walls, terrariums housing all manner of creatures, and spaces throughout the school that invite experimentation. In a 1984 study, it was found that while kindergarten-age children asked 27 questions per hour at home, that number plummeted to only about three when they were at school. Some of this drop-off is unavoidable because kids at school don’t have the opportunity to ask questions endlessly as they might at home, but it’s not inevitable if the school environment tolerates a curious child.

  3. Stamping out gossip

    Gossip, it turns out, is a natural expression of curiosity in both kids and adults (which is why you go straight for magazines at the hairdresser). People get kind of highfalutin about gossip. But if it’s done without malice, discussing complex social relationships can be a healthy and natural way to satisfy one’s curiosity about what other kids are doing. Especially in a school setting, where so much of the day is prescribed, kids relish talking to each other in ways that are unscripted and unexpected.

  4. Overscheduling kids’ time

    It’s the curse of the modern parent — we want to schedule every nanosecond of our child’s day to make sure every moment counts. But guess what: strategic neglect is a better approach to fostering curiosity.

    Let them be bored. Unstructured time can, after the initial whining, lead to the most fruitful exploration, whether a box gets turned into a car or there’s a rainy-day discovery that painting is your child’s great passion.

  5. Choosing what your child should learn

    You’ve schlepped your 10-year-old and his best friend to the local science museum to see the special exhibit on the Big Bang. The exhibit, which will only be there a month, is an outstanding learning opportunity! But all they want to do is climb the trees in front of the museum. These are valuable teachable moments — for parents.

    You can’t legislate curiosity. The secret to encouraging curiosity is to avoid holding on so tightly to what you think your child should learn that you don’t allow them the latitude to explore where their inquisitiveness leads them. So if you don’t make it inside the museum this time, don’t fret. Your child is getting an education out on that branch even if he isn’t learning anything about the Big Bang today.

  6. Celebrating achievement

    Perfection, it is said, is the enemy of innovation. Of course, it’s terrific if your middle schooler wins her fifth consecutive soccer game or your teen gets into a top college. And there’s nothing wrong with being happy about that. But take care that you’re not hyperfocused on the award, grade, or accomplishment. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, explores how praising the process (the hard work it took to get there) rather than the person (as in, “You’re the best soccer player!”) makes kids more likely to seek out challenges and take intellectual risks.

    The goal of success is often in opposition to the inquiry. Many parents who care about curiosity find themselves conflicted when they have to make a choice between encouraging their child’s curiosity and wanting their child to ‘do well.’ Most of us want our children to get the right answer and the good grade. A good grade is nice, but really wanting to learn something, and being so interested that you can’t let it go, is a much more powerful and enduring experience.

  7. Having all the answers

    For Einstein’s sake, answer the question already so you can get some peace! Not so fast. When your child asks you a question the best thing you can say in response is, “How can we find out?” It’s also fine to admit you don’t know the answer. In fact, what’s far more important than having the answers is to engender an environment in which question-asking is the norm. Information-seeking through questions can be thwarted or encouraged, depending on how parents engage with their kids.

    Mothers who asked a lot of questions had children who also asked a lot of questions. By implication, children may be influenced by messages they receive about how to have a conversation. If their mother uses language to gather information, they are more likely to do the same. So, if you are curious about why ladybugs are called ladybugs or why colds always feel worse late in the afternoon or why Pluto isn’t a planet anymore, go ahead and ask! Out loud! Role models have a big impact on kids. When kids are around curious adults, they are more interested in things around them.

  8. Putting safety first

    A big reason parents may unwittingly discourage curiosity is that it can be dangerous. The hard truth is that curiosity and the need to resolve uncertainty and the unexpected is not without risk. Your bold and inquiring tween might decide to see what happens if she zaps a magnet in the microwave or how speedily she can navigate her bicycle down your steep street.

    The curious child, the one thirsty to seek out the new, even at some risk, can have an intellectual advantage. It’s a parental balancing act, to be sure, to keep children out of trouble while giving them room to grow intellectually. Parents have to balance their tolerance for potential harm with their interest in giving their children room to explore. Children are better than we think at taking care of themselves. And kids need to learn how by doing it.

  9. Putting “encourage curiosity” on your parenting to-do list

    As a parent you don’t necessarily have to do anything. Supporting curiosity as a parent is more about letting it happen. Celebrate it and share it with your child but don’t add it to the list of ways you can improve your child’s prospects. Since curious adults and kids both tend to be happier than those who aren’t, parents who begin to pursue their curiosity a little more self-consciously and become just a little more attuned to their children’s questions and urges to explore will probably be doing more than enough to promote their children’s curiosity.


– Anonymous

Today in a “school parents” Facebook group, a little discontent broke out. It occurred after a very proud parent posted a picture of her son’s grades. She was beaming through the keyboard I am sure, sharing the good news of straight A+ on his exams.

I think it’s great that her son kicked academic butt. And if you’re the type to share those kinds of personal achievements in a social media parent’s group, hey, that is great!

But after that initial grade sharing post, plenty more of the same followed, until one parent chimed in with, “I thought this was a support group for parents, not a bragging group?”

I hear you mom. I hear you loud and clear.

Like many others, I too am concerned with the grades my kids are receiving, but maybe the years have wised me up a little, because my perspective on their success is not what it once was. While I think it is great that her student was able to master Arithmetic while doing his own laundry for the first time, I’d like to know if he also did some of this…

Did he sit with a classmate or neighbour who was stressed? Did he calm them down, make them laugh, join them for lunch, or walk to the library with them, all while knowing he had studying to do himself, but remedying their sadness was more important?

Did she take class notes for a sick classmate?

Did he smile and give a nod of thanks to the staff member or helper for assisting him with something?

Did she take out her room’s garbage without being asked, even when it’s not her assigned room chore?

Did he share his lunch with the classmate that forgot to bring their lunch?

Did she take a friend to the health centre or sickroom when her friend fell down and hurt herself?

Did he comfort a classmate that got lower grades and wanted to help them get better grades next time?

There is no report card for any of that.

There is no grading rubric for being a decent human being.

Parents, it’s awesome you’re proud of your kid’s grades! Shout it to the world!

But it’s also awesome to remember that a academic report card does not define a life, or even a portion of it.

An “A” in Arithmetic is great, but a metaphorical “A” in kindness, graciousness, and unselfishness is, well, you can’t put a grade on that kind of success.

The writer wishes to remain anonymous.

Inside the tweener’s brain

Hank Pellissier

The tweens and early teens of sixth, seventh, and eighth grade are often hormone-addled, pimpled, unpredictable narcissists, rudely defiant one second and emotionally clingy the next. They’ve probably calculated that you’re not as completely cool as Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Stephen Curry, or even their faddishly-dressed BFF — and they let you know it. You may wonder if your precious child’s body is inhabited by aliens. Honestly, close guess — those invading “aliens” are hormones.

When kids reach puberty, their brains produce gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). When GnRH courses into the tiny pituitary gland, two additional hormones — luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) — escape and basically run wild. In boys, these hormones swim south, telling the testes to start manufacturing testosterone and sperm. In girls, LH and FSH manipulate the ovaries, soliciting production of estrogen. Either way, all hell breaks loose.

During this traumatic time, we need to provide often-unwanted (but typically much-needed) love, advice, and support — which is why it’s helpful to know what’s occurring, anatomically, in their evolving noggins. Here’s how you can better understand — and navigate — the cranial crises of your adolescent child.

Judgment or lack thereof

From middle school to maturity, the brain’s primary growth area is the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobes, a region that’s referred to as the “CEO” or “central decision-maker” of the brain. The cognitive control center, it’s responsible for functions like mediating conflicting emotions, making ethical decisions, inhibiting emotional and sexual urges, general intelligence and predicting future events. If you’ve noticed your 11-year-old son can be frightfully disorganized, or that your tween daughter now seeks a private area, like in a locked box or drawer, for secret items or a journal, you can trace these behaviors back to the brain of their brains, so to speak.

And right now it’s changing tremendously in a “rewiring” process that fortifies certain neural highways while virtually abandoning the majority of others. The transitional activity of this rewiring phase is disorienting for your young teen, and often exhibits itself in recklessness, poor decision-making, and emotional outbursts.

Pleasure seekers

A research article published in Cerebral Cortex (January 2010) suggests that adolescents indulge in risk-taking behavior because the anterior insula is more highly-activated in young teens than in adults, and the ventral striatum peaks in middle adolescence. These regions are hypersensitive to reward. Underdevelopment of frontal lobes also makes youngsters behave more emotionally, because they’re still making decisions with their wild, fight-or-flight, reptilian-brain amygdala, instead of with their reasonable, civilized (and still growing) prefrontal cortex. Warn your impulsive daredevil about the dangers of drugs, smoking, alcohol, unsafe sex, and out-of-control skateboarding without a helmet, emphasizing the catastrophic harm that can befall their most prized possession: the mind.

Weird growth

Yikes! What’s growing? Tell your child immediately (if you haven’t already) about the physical changes ahead, which are triggered by the GnRH and LH hormone releases. For girls: breasts, acne, pubic hair, menstruation, wider hips. For boys: underarm, pubic, and facial hair, acne, larger testicles, wet dreams, erections, etc. If you don’t warn your pubescent progeny, they’ll be freaked out by “gross” surprises. Plus, tell them — while they squirm and cringe — that they might start to develop crushes. Middle schoolers are often self-conscious about their body’s developments, with anxiety about how others view them.

Feed the brain

Many sixth, seventh, and eighth graders want to slurp unhealthy junk food and soda pop into their gullets, because the “pleasure” centers of their brain develop sooner than their ability to calculate long-term consequences. They’ll beg for it. But don’t cave in: Junk food contains chemicals that can disrupt their hormonal secretions. Instead, help your child eat healthy food — and explain that it fosters their brain development. (Try some healthy brain foods for kids.) The Centers for Disease Control recommends a diet filled with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, which is moderate in sugar, salt and saturated fats. This doesn’t mean putting your child on a no-fat diet! “Healthy fats” such as egg yolks, avocado, and salmon are known to support brain function. Avoid the obesity that weighs down almost 20 percent of U.S. children this age — studies show obesity can eventually cause a decline in the brain’s cognitive abilities, particularly in learning and memory. Studies also indicate that bulimia nervosa can negatively affect brain regions involved in the reward circuitry, and according to researchers at Yale, anorexia may shrink the afflicted’s grey matter.

No virtual violence

Gamers played one of two types of video games while researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine used MRIs to watch which brain regions were stimulated. When kids played “Need for Speed: Underground” — a non-violent game — activity was observed in the frontal area, a zone associated with concentration and self-control. But when kids played “Medal of Honor: Frontline” — a violent game — there was no frontal area activation; instead, the amygdala was excited. (That’s the “reptilian” part of the brain.) The amygdala is affiliated with emotional arousal — especially anger — and is linked to aggressive, impulsive behaviors. Repeated firing up of reptilian zones can “hardwire” a developing brain for less self-control, which is not great in middle school or in adulthood. So if you purchase video games, make sure the focus is on racing or skill, not violence.

Tuning in to tweens

An article in Journal of Adolescent Research reports that in a study of 6,026 middle schoolers, “students enrolled in formal instrumental or choral music instruction . . . outperformed [their peers]” in algebra. The correlation was especially noted with African-American pupils. Seem like a coincidence? Think again: Research suggests that, “musicians process music in the same cortical regions that adolescents process algebra.”

Gender gap

Girls’ and boys’ brains are vastly different in middle school. The National Institute of Health discovered that the halfway mark in brain development (called the inflection point) occurs in females just before they turn 11, but dawdling males don’t get there until they’re nearly 15. Academic abilities might also vary widely by gender. In girls, language and fine motor skills generally mature first, up to six years earlier. In the past, girls were found to lag behind boys in math, raising the possibility that girls brain development differed from boys. But since recent research finds girls now perform as well as boys in math, a more probable cause for the gender gap is culture not biology.

Check mate

Strengthened interconnectedness in middle school isn’t just a social phenomenon — it’s in their brain architecture, too. You’ll see it in your child’s improved ability to plan, problem solve, process complex thought, do deductive reasoning, and process information. To multiply your middle schooler’s mental powers, encourage them to play chess. Studies indicate that the tactical thinking required in the “Game of Kings” initiates a significant advance in mathematical ability. Other strategic brain-builders are checkers, backgammon, and the UniWar app for iPhone and Android.

Brain and brawn

When it comes to helping your tween develop their mind, it’s worth challenging their muscles as well. Research shows that exercise has a significant positive effect on kid’s cognitive development. Students with higher fitness levels get higher grades and perform better on tests. One study found that strenuous aerobic exercise just before academically challenging classes help kids absorb and retain new material.

Jay Giedd, neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, has remarked that, “recess and play seems to be the first thing that is cut out of school curriculums… But those actually may be as important, or maybe even more important, than some of the academic subjects that the children are doing…” To buff up both their brain and their body, encourage your middle schooler to be active, play sports, and exercise regularly. Parents can also work out with them to provide healthy role models.

Benevolent rule

A middle-schooler’s evolving brain requires firm guidance from diligent adults. Developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind, author of Prototypical Descriptions of 3 Parenting Styles, recommends “authoritative” parenting because it provides consistent, compassionate, goal-clarifying direction, and allows the child to build self-esteem by making intelligent choices. Over-controlling “authoritarian” parents who scold incessantly can instill a sense of inadequacy in their offspring, and over-indulgent “permissive” parents that heap silly praise without justification just give their kids a false sense of attainment.

Employ these tactics in your battle to raise a mature and sensible kid, and you’ll be a “totally awesome parent,” even if your teen doesn’t come out and say it just yet. Just wait — someday he certainly will.

14 must-have life skills for teens

-Connie Matthiessen 

Your nearly-grown-up teenager can conjugate latin verbs, do quadratic equations, and write a slam-dunk essay. But do they know that washing a white T-shirt with red skinny jeans will turn it pink?

If you’re wondering how your teen will survive on their own, don’t worry too much — chances are your child is a lot more capable than you think. Even so, now is a good time to teach your teen a few practical skills that will leave both of you feeling a little more confident about your offspring’s readiness to leave the nest.

  1. How to do the laundry

    If your child isn’t already doing their own laundry, it’s time to learn. Removing lip balm and pens from pockets, hot water or cold, sorting colors, dealing with delicate fabrics, and removing lint from the dryer should all be part of the curriculum.

  2. How to clean the bathroom

    Your child’s future roommates and romantic partners will thank you for making sure they know how to clean a bathroom. This includes what products and tools to use and which surfaces should not be ignored.

  3. How to plunge a toilet

    Ditto #2. Unfortunately there’s no substitute for hands-on learning here. The next time there’s a clog, hand your teen a plunger and let them know the best way to learn is by doing. (And mention that this is a skill that could one day save them from an embarrassing moment as a guest.)

  4. Basic first aid and CPR

    Everyone should know the basics of what to do in a medical emergency, from handling minor injuries to knowing when to seek medical help right away. Teens can feel at once invincible and powerless, so have a discussion about when to call for an emergency — even if they risk getting themselves or someone else into trouble. It truly is always better to be safe than sorry.

  5. How to boil water — and more

    Is your teen’s cooking repertoire limited to frozen pizza and mac and cheese? If so, encourage them to choose a couple of easy dishes to master. (Bonus if they actually include vegetables!) See them through from shopping to clean-up. As the school year winds down, ask your teen to cook dinner once or twice to practice and expand their college-cooking skills. And if your child’s dorm only allows a rice cooker and a coffee maker, challenge your child to find the innovative one-pot or boiled-water-only recipes they can dash out with these minimal tools. Plus, that in-room hot cocoa, coffee, oatmeal, ramen, and rice-cooker-steamed-stir-fry are far cheaper than the alternatives at the food court.

  6. How to budget

    If you haven’t already, sit down with your child and show them how to draw up a monthly budget based on how much money they’ll have to spend each month. Explain how you handle your household income, spending, and savings, and point out some of the choices you have to make to stay within your budget. Discuss spending choices they’ll likely encounter in college, and how to manage them.

  7. How to pay bills, manage a bank account, and pay taxes

    Does your teen have a bank account yet? If not, help your child open one — ideally at a bank with a branch near campus. Your teen needs to know some key things, like how to access the account online, check the balance, pay bills, whether or not there’s a minimum balance requirement (and what that is), how to avoid overdraft fees, and how to notify the bank if their debit card is lost or stolen. Finally, yes, the thrill of being an adult includes paying taxes. If your teen has a job of any kind, it’s a good idea to file taxes. A dependent who didn’t earn all that much will likely get a refund.

  8. How to use a credit card

    Credit card companies pepper college students with credit card offers, so even if you don’t want your student to have a credit card yet, you should discuss the pros and cons of credit cards with your teen anyway. Discuss specifics like interest rates and fees, as well as other risks.

  9. Basic car maintenance

    If your child has a car (and even if your teen will be riding in other people’s cars), make sure they know what the car’s various check engine lights mean and what to do if they go on. There’s no time like the present for kids to learn how to check oil, water, and tire pressure levels, find the spare and change a tire, and jump a car battery. Have a talk about how much money it saves down the line to have a car serviced regularly. If you can swing it, adding your teen to your roadside assistance service may be a good move, too, in case they get stuck and need a tow.

  10. How to read a map

    Google maps and navigators only work when your device is charged and getting a signal. But a lost, dead, or broken device shouldn’t keep a teen from getting safely where they’re going. There’s nothing better than a paper map to navigate new territory when the going gets tough — but reading a map is a skill that needs to be taught and practised.

  11. How to write a professional email

    Sure, your child’s been submitting school work electronically for a while now, but can your teen write a polite, concise email that shows them in the best possible light — a message that’s clear, to the point, error-, slang- and emoji-free?

  12. How to manage their time and health

    Your teen is fresh off successfully juggling senior year and college apps, but you were there to make sure they ate and slept. Late-night pizza and all-nighters may be a rite of passage in college, but you want to make sure your teen understands the effects that sleep (and lack thereof) and nutrition (ditto) have on their brain and cognition.

  13. Trusting their inner voice

    You’ve likely had this conversation at different points in your teen’s childhood but now is a good time for the college version. There will be so many new scenarios coming your teen’s way, you cannot cover them all. But it’s a good idea to practice talking through a few. Can your child tell when a person is high or sketchy — and keep a healthy distance? Can your child deflect questions that seem off or think of ways to excuse themselves when things get… weird? This is, actually, something you can practice together or that your teen can practice with their friends.

  14. How (and when) to ask for help

    Make sure your teen knows they’re not supposed to know how to do everything. There’s no shame in not knowing. Capable, independent people became that way by asking for help when they need it! Brainstorm with your teen to identify trusted sources or adults they can go to for help, from the resident advisor in their dorm to their college counsellor to a local relative or friend of the family — that is, when you’re not available by text.

12 tips for raising truthful kids

-Charity Ferreira 

Brace yourself for the cold, hard truth: all kids lie. They do it for many of the same reasons adults do: to avoid getting into trouble, to avoid hurting another person’s feelings, or to make themselves look better. The ability to tell a lie develops early — as young as 2½ for some kids — and it’s a normal and important stage of kids’ cognitive and social development. By age 4, all kids lie; by age 6, some estimates are that kids lie as often as once an hour. We asked experts — researchers, child development specialists, and psychologists — for their advice on teaching kids the value of honesty at every stage.

  1. Model honesty

    It sounds obvious, but if you don’t want your kids to lie to you, don’t lie to them, and don’t let them hear you telling lies. “It’s one thing to say to kids that honesty is important, but then if they see you lying, it sends a mixed message,” says Victoria Talwar, associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology at McGill University in Montreal and a leading researcher on kids and lying.

    It’s surely less effort to say, “I don’t have any money with me” than to explain to your child that they can’t have ice cream because they’ve already had a sweet treat that day or because it’s too close to dinner. Or to tell the fundraiser on the phone that you aren’t interested in donating rather than saying you already did. But over time, so-called “little white lies” teach your child that dishonesty is okay in some situations — and leaves them to interpret which situations those are. If you want your child to grow up with the belief that honesty is the best policy, do your best to live by that credo, too.

  2. Don’t set them up

    Particularly for preschool-aged kids, one way to deter lying is simply by not inviting them to. When you see your child with a juice-stained lip and an overturned bottle on the table, there’s no need to ask, “Did you spill this juice?” Kids this age will lie out of a desire to avoid getting into trouble, says Dr. Peter Stavinoha, a clinical neuropsychologist for the Center for Pediatric Psychiatry at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas. ”If you know they did it, don’t ask! If you ask, you’re giving them the option to lie. So they lie, and then you get upset about that, and now there’s two things where there used to be only one,” Stavinoha says.

    “Looks like you spilled some juice. Let’s clean it up together,” keeps things focused on the issue at hand. And if you’re not sure who broke the vase, or which sibling is lying about it, Stavinoha says, go straight to the consequence. “Don’t engage with the question of did they break it or which child broke it. Focus on what you want accomplished. ‘We have a mess here. I’m asking you both to clean it up.’ You’re showing them that there’s no positive consequence for denying responsibility.”

  3. Tell positive stories

    In a study led by University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee, researchers including Talwar found that kids ages 3 to 7 who heard the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, which illustrates a positive consequence of honesty (George is praised for telling the truth), were much more likely to tell the truth than kids who heard the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, which illustrates a negative consequence of lying (the shepherd repeatedly calls for help as a prank, but the one time he really needs help, the villagers don’t come to his rescue).

    “We talk about lying being bad, but we don’t highlight the alternative behavior. Kids need examples for how to behave in situations where lying might be easier, stories that show how to be honest, what does that look like? Those are important messages,” says Talwar. For older kids, talking about the honesty of the characters in the books they’re reading can provoke inspiring and instructive discussion.

  4. Ask for a promise

    If you need a straight answer about something you’re concerned about, such as an incident at school, asking your child to promise to tell you the truth before asking them a question increases the chances that they will, studies suggest. But note that this strategy is not a guarantee, and it should be used sparingly so that you don’t wear it out. “You don’t want to overuse this one or it may lose its efficacy,” says Angela Crossman, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York. And as Talwar notes, promises tend to feel more binding to younger kids.

  5. Say truth-telling makes you happy

    Young children, under the age of 8 or so, are very motivated to please authority figures, says Talwar. Her research shows that telling kids that you’ll be happy with them if they tell the truth increases the likelihood they’ll be straight with you. Tweens and teens, she notes, tend to care somewhat less about pleasing authority figures and more about their own internal sense of what’s right. (Another study found that telling 9- to 11-year-olds that they would feel good about themselves if they told the truth decreased the chances they would tell a lie.) At all ages, look for opportunities to make your child feel good about being trustworthy.

  6. Teach tact

    Kids learn early — from their parents — how to lie for the sake of politeness or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. “Thanks, this book looks great,” instead of, “I already have this book!” or “I can’t play because I’m busy,” instead of “I don’t like playing with you!” Researchers call these kinds of lies “prosocial” because they smooth our interactions with others. But being honest does not have to equal being rude or hurtful. The key, says Talwar, is to balance honesty with consideration for the other person’s feelings. “We want to teach our children to be honest but we want to teach them to be kind as well. We need to teach honesty in a way that potentially helps others rather than potentially hurts others,” says Talwar. In the case of the book, this might mean saying it’s an author they like, or expressing appreciation for the thought that went into choosing it.

  7. Don’t reward the lie

    When your child lies, there’s a reason — they’re seeking something. And if they get it, that can reinforce lying as an effective strategy. So if you notice that your younger child always fabricates a story about getting hurt at school as soon as your older child starts telling you about their day, it might be an attention-seeking behavior. “When a child lies, figure out what dynamic may be going on,” suggests Crossman. “Are there ways you can ignore the lie so they don’t get the reward? Can they get what they’re wanting in some other way?”

  8. Catch them being honest

    We often catch kids in lies, says Talwar, but if we want to teach them to value honesty, we need to look for opportunities to acknowledge when they tell the truth, especially in situations where it might have been easier for them to lie. When your child tells you the truth about something they’ve done, take a moment to show that you appreciate their honesty by saying, “I’m really glad you told me the truth.”

  9. Discipline calmly

    In environments where punishments are doled out harshly and arbitrarily, research shows that kids learn to lie earlier and more skillfully than their counterparts in less punitive environments. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discipline. But in an atmosphere with a punitive, authoritarian approach to discipline, developing the ability to lie can be seen as a protective measure.

    “One thing parents can do is simply not have a great big emotional reaction. The more explosive the parent gets, the more frightened the child gets, and the more likely they are to lie. Simply remaining calm and sticking to the facts you’ve observed is one way to get kids to tell the truth,” says Stavinoha.

  10. Have a conversation, not a lecture

    The more open and conversational the relationship between parent and teen, the more effective, says Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of the best-selling The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. “That means more discussing and less lecturing.” When clashes happen, waiting for the situation to abate and approaching your teenager calmly is always going to yield a more positive outcome, he says. And when it comes to raising truthful teens, he recommends discussing issues of honesty and lying openly with your child. “Something along the lines of, ‘We want you to feel free to be honest with us, regardless of what you have to say.’ Teens respond well to this type of communication, but parents have to be prepared for the honesty!”

  11. Set clear rules

    Ninety-eight percent of teenagers worldwide lie to their parents. That’s the conclusion of Dr. Nancy Darling, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Oberlin College, who has researched teens and honesty for two decades. Darling says setting clear rules is important for cultivating an honest relationship with teens — and that being strict is okay. However, she says, it’s essential that parents pair this with being emotionally warm and open and accepting, so teens don’t think they will be harshly and unjustly punished.

    “If you balance these two aspects of parenting clearly, your teenagers will be more likely to ask for your permission and more likely to confess if they have broken a rule. They need to respect you and believe you will be warm, accepting, and non-punitive,” she says. “If kids think you have the right to set rules, if they respect you, they are more likely to be truthful — but they’ll still want to argue with you about what is safe and what they should be allowed to do.”

  12. Give them space

    Respecting teens’ natural desire for privacy can encourage more honesty, Darling says. “You don’t want to be intrusive, you don’t want to get into their business more than you need to,” she cautions. “Ask for only the information you need. If you do that, they will probably provide additional information.” For example, you need to know your teen was safely at a friend’s house on Friday night; you don’t need to know what they talked about. Prying too deeply is asking for teens to push back by putting up barriers or lying, Darling says. So keep it on a need-to-know basis, and if they still clam up, just explain, “You don’t want me to butt into your business, and I don’t want to butt into your business but I have to know because …” and tell them why you need an honest answer.


How to raise a kid who won’t quit

-by Hank Pellissier 

Determined, diligent, tenacious, persistent — we use these adjectives to describe Olympians, spelling bee champions, entrepreneurs, and success stories of all kinds. Do they describe your child?

Researchers continue to examine how so-called “soft,” noncognitive skills like grit affect academic success as it becomes increasingly clear that these qualities are even more predictive of achievement than intelligence or talent. While there’s still much to learn about teaching kids to buckle down and work hard, research suggests there are lots of ways parents can support the development of this mindset. Here are eight ways to nurture grit in your child over time.

  1. Let them play

    Just like adults, kids tend to work harder when they love what they’re doing. What’s the best way to help your child discover what they’re passionate about? Let them explore freely and widely.

    “Before those who’ve yet to fix on a passion are ready to spend hours a day diligently honing skills, they must goof around, triggering and retriggering interest,” writes Duckworth in Grit. Exploring the world through family outings, media, exhibits, new people, and extracurricular clubs, classes, and lessons can spark lifelong interests.

    To form an enduring passion, Duckworth claims, that first spark of interest needs to be followed by many subsequent encounters that will trigger and retrigger your child’s attention. So if your child’s curiosity is piqued by any topic from acrobatics to zoology, you can support their nascent interest by offering additional exposure to that subject.

    Note that this does not mean packing your child’s every waking moment with scheduled activity; make sure they have plenty of (screen-free) downtime to fill with self-chosen projects of creative discovery.

  2. Help them practice self-control

    Self-control is the quality that comes into play when your child has two possible actions to choose from, one that promises immediate pleasure, the other not as pleasurable in the moment but that serves a more distant goal. Post to Instagram or practice piano? Play a video game or study for a math test?

    Perhaps not surprisingly, self-control is closely related to the ability to work toward a goal over time. Studies have shown that higher levels of self-control early in life predict how well kids do academically, as well as a host of other positive outcomes including adult earnings, savings, and physical health.

    While researchers aren’t clear exactly how self-control and grit are related (it’s possible to have one without the other), the good news is that self-control can be learned. Playing games like Red Light, Green Light and Simon Says, rewarding kids for delayed gratification, making sure kids get enough sleep, and limiting their TV-watching are all associated with helping kids develop the ability to control their impulses, which may translate to an ability later to resist the siren call of their smartphone and focus on that history essay.

  3. Aim high

    Many studies have shown that kids work harder and do better when their teacher has high expectations for them. Parental expectations matter, too. High achievers who persevere in the face of challenges tend to come from families with high standards for their academic success and a home environment that supports learning.

    Healthy achievement doesn’t arise simply out of high expectations but, paradoxically, out of feeling secure, notes Diana Divecha, developmental psychologist and researcher with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

    “Opportunities to stretch, opportunities to be trusted and respected, and the experience of being supported when necessary all help to foster a child’s belief in success. And of course keep your priorities straight and reassure them of your love no matter the outcome,” she says.

  4. Praise the process

    If you want to raise a kid who is eager to take on challenges and is not deterred by obstacles, don’t praise him for being smart; it may make him reluctant to try something harder for fear that if he fails, it will reveal that he isn’t so smart after all.

    The research of Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, shows that when children are praised for their intelligence or talents, they avoid challenges and are less resilient in the face of difficulty. But when children are praised for hard work that paid off, they are more likely to seek out challenges and keep going when things get tough. They are more motivated, more persistent, and more successful.

    Switching from person-praise to process-praise is easy: just refer to what the child did, not who they are. Compliment the carefulness of the sewing project, the gutsy attentiveness displayed in the basketball game, the well-organized time management used in studying for the final exam.

  5. Encourage goals big and small

    Helping your child set short-, medium-, and long-term goals that resonate with their personal values and interests can teach them persistence, according to Duckworth in Grit. An example of a short-term goal for your sixth grade daughter might be an A on her science final, a medium-term goal could be winning a medal in a city or state science fair and a long-term goal would be receiving a science scholarship to attend college.

    Your child’s goals should be in what educators call the “optimal zone” — not too easy, not too hard, but just right. Research shows that hard goals can help your child focus their attention, work harder, and develop strategic thinking. But if a goal is so difficult that it’s beyond their ability to achieve, they may be setting themselves up for anxiety.

  6. Extracurriculars help

    Activities outside of regular school hours, such as sports, drama, debate, Scouts, or music, are a great context for learning how to work hard at something over time. New York Timescolumnist Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, writes that Michelle Obama made each of her daughters take up two sports — one she chose and one they chose, so that they would have the experience of working at something they may not necessarily like and seeing improvement.

    Research shows that students who participate in extracurricular activities get better grades and have higher self-esteem, lower rates of depression, and lower dropout rates than students who don’t. Kids who devote more than one year to the same activity are more likely to graduate from college; and sticking with the same activity for two years or more increases their odds of employment soon after college.

  7. Imagine that

    When it comes to developing tenacity, studies show that visualizing a future goal — and the potential obstacles to achieving it — really works. In one study, high school students were instructed to imagine a desired future outcome and then visualize possible obstacles to that outcome. The exercise improved high school students’ persistence in studying for the PSAT. In another study, kids were asked were asked to visualize a possible adult version of themselves. Next they listed positive and negative forces that could help or derail their progress toward becoming that person, along with strategies for success. Two years later, students who had participated in the exercise spent more time on their homework and had higher GPAs than kids in the control group.

    Our takeaway? When kids spend time visualizing where they want to be and how they’ll get there, they’re more likely to work hard.

  8. Do a style check

    How would you describe your parenting style? Permissive? Hands-off? Authoritarian? Research suggests that your parenting style can affect how determined your child is. Spoiler alert: An authoritative parenting style, one that’s firm yet warm, seems to be the sweet spot. Myriad studies indicate that kids with authoritative parents have more positive outcomes, from less drug use to greater well-being. And research suggests that the authoritative style, with its high expectations and high responsiveness, has the greatest effect on academic success.

    Authoritarian parents may make more decisions for their child, while permissive parents may lean toward letting kids figure it out on their own — in both cases, missing opportunities to help kids learn how to make good decisions. An authoritative parenting style is one that guides — children of authoritative parents are instructed to think carefully, weighing their options and consequences. These children obtain an advantage in developing self-confidence, willpower, and self-discipline — qualities associated with a gritty character.