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Inspiring Your Kids to Learn

"Why do I have to look up words in a dictionary? I don't care what the words mean," my 8-year-old daughter sputters.

I take a deep breath. We've had this conversation before. But this time I resist the urge to lecture Danielle that if she doesn't learn proper English, she's going to have a hard time making herself understood. I hold back because, truth be told, explaining that to her is not likely to make her suddenly smile brightly and say, "Oh, thanks for pointing out the error of my ways. From now on, the dictionary and I are buddies."

So what can I do to help inspire my daughter? We all know that not every child can be class valedictorian, but we still get frustrated when our children don't try to be the best we believe they could be. Fortunately, there are ways to nudge them along--but it takes some motivation of our own.


The easiest way to encourage a student's desire to learn is for you to get involved. That means being aware of the subjects your child is studying and figuring out what would make homework assignments more enjoyable for her, says Peggy Shecket, a parenting consultant in Columbus, OH. "Go to the library together so your child senses a partnership between you and her, and between you and her teacher," Shecket recommends. "Let her visualize what she's learning with trips to museums, shows, even ethnic restaurants that relate to her assignments."

If your child does not see the benefit to learning math, for instance, you can show him how the subject relates to his life without a lecture. Take him to the supermarket and have him shop, compare prices, and then pay for the items and count the change. "This quickly teaches children that math is a tool they need for life," says Sheryl Nicholson, a communications expert and certified professional speaker in Tampa, FL.

Many experts recommend having a quiet work time each day when the family sits together. Even reading the newspaper models for your child that you are interested in learning new things.

Eleven-year-old Cary Smith is motivated when he enjoys an assignment--like any book report that calls for a diorama. But ask him to read the book and he complains, says his mother, Wendy Leopold of Evanston, IL. "I found that what gets him interested is if we share the reading, so we read aloud to each other," Leopold says. "Or I'll organize his time so he can play basketball after he gets through two chapters." Acknowledge your child's frustration with homework by saying: "I know you don't like history. How can we make it better? Can we celebrate a completed page of your report by taking a break outside?"

If your child still sends the message, "I don't care," you may have to look further to interpret what he is really saying, Nicholson says. Does he need extra help understanding the material? Or are there signs of a learning problem, which could include difficulty reading, writing, focusing, or remembering?

If you can eliminate those concerns, your child may just be trying to push your buttons. Hold him accountable for his choices: If he chooses not to do his homework, you should let him face the consequences with his teacher.


Parents who are high achievers may find it particularly galling to have a child who isn't highly motivated, but that child may be perfectly normal. In other words, if she does her best and still earns a "C" in science, you may need to accept that that's where she is right now, says Gery LeGagnoux, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist at UCLA. "Children are in a learning process, and they are allowed to make errors and improve upon them," he says. "Even if they don't excel at a subject now, that may change as they go through school." But it won't happen if a child is turned off by a parent who demands perfection or is not satisfied with her at any level, LeGagnoux warns. Such responses will eventually cause the child to give up or rebel.

Maybe your child doesn't aspire to be a top student; he may have other interests in which he loves to invest energy. For example, he might enjoy writing a play for his class to perform. How can you discover your child's strengths? Rona Novick, Ph.D., coordinator of the Parenting Center in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, NY, suggests breaking big projects into smaller ones. "You can't insist that your child be a star baseball player, but working on his catch is an attainable goal," she says.

Teach your child the notion of trying something at least once. Not everyone can be a virtuoso, but you can encourage your son to try the violin for a month. Novick also suggests looking to role models for inspiration. If your child idolizes someone in sports or music, ask him what he thinks that person did to get there. "A lot of what we see is the end product, and kids get the message that stars just get that way," says Novick. So reading biographies can also help inspire kids.

The time to be concerned if your child is satisfied at a low level of achievement is if he also seems seriously depressed or has persistently low self-esteem. At that point, Novick advises parents to consider counseling.

I've learned that the trick to motivating my daughter is finding out what makes her tick. "Let me see that dictionary," I said to Danielle when she balked at looking up the hard words. "Hey, here's the definition for 'origami.' You like that. Let's see what it says about it." Her interest was piqued. Ten minutes later she was done with her assignment, chatting about some of the new words she had discovered.