Monday morning Q & A: How to address a lack of effort

I received multiple question submissions last week around one of the most popular topics for parents—how to help kids who seem to lack effort. Here are two examples:

How can I encourage a growth mindset in a student who considers the minimal work or effort acceptable and who overcomes a challenge by avoiding it completely?

How do I motivate super talented but less self-driven boys in high school studies?

It’s one of those topics where the best approach (if there even is one) really depends on the student. But here are a few things I’d advise any parent to consider if they’re worried about a lack of effort—especially academic related—on the part of their kids.

Be curious, not frustrated.
A lack of effort could stem from a number of things ranging from the routine to the concerning. It could be that a student just can’t get excited about biology. It could be a learning difference or depression. It could be that they’re much more interested in other things. But whatever the reason, resist the urge to write it off as a character flaw. “He’s just lazy” is easy to say but hard to substantiate (and even harder for kids to hear). As much as you can, try to replace your frustration with curiosity. Seek what’s behind what you believe is a lack of effort.

Rethink your expectations.
Are you really seeing a lack of effort in your student? Or are you seeing a lack of effort in the areas everyone says are so crucial to a kid’s future, like grades, test scores, and other academic measures? Kids are interested in different things. They often put more effort into some things than others. So while a teen may not naturally double down on their trigonometry efforts, they may be doing so in other areas that aren’t reflected on a transcript. I understand why that might still leave parents unnerved. But a teen who’s completely devoid of any effort at all is one who likely needs help for a larger problem. A teen who lacks the effort to prepare for the ACT might just be acting like a normal teen.

Duplicate the bright spots.
Where do you see your student investing effort without you having to push? What’s different about that interest or activity? And what could you do to praise, nurture, and support more of that? It’s hard to do this if the interest doesn’t seem traditionally productive. For example, a student who spends hours playing video games might be feeding a nascent interest in game design or programming. And at the very least, they’re getting a taste of what it feels like to invest time and energy into something that matters to them. Once they experience that feeling, they’re more likely to chase it in other areas.

Let them make their own choices.
Science has shown that autonomy—a sense of influence over what we do, as well as how, when, and with whom—is a crucial element of human motivation. As much as is reasonable, let kids make their own choices. This isn’t to suggest that we should let them do whatever they want, whenever they want. But most teens don’t have a sense of autonomy, as the structure and demands of high school and activities mean that anywhere from 6-18 hours a day are already decided for them. If your kid decides that what she really wants to do with a few hours of free time is watch YouTube videos or update his social media profiles, there are worse things a kid could be up to. And the more control they get to exercise over those areas of their lives, the less they’re likely to resent the lack of that control in other areas.

Praise effort independently of the outcome.
If more effort is what you want, then praise effort when you see it without—and this is crucial—tying it to the outcome at all. If your student works like crazy to prepare for an exam and still finds you’re disappointed with the B- or C or D+ that they earned, don’t be surprised if they don’t work quite so hard the next time.

Remember that this, too, shall pass.
Plenty of successful adults will happily tell you what screwups they were back in high school. These are kids. They’re not fully formed. They aren’t who they’re going to be yet. Let’s not treat the choices they make in high school as permanent molds for the lives they’ll lead decades from now. Yes, high school is a good training ground for life during and after college. But that training ground is like a rough draft, one that can be anything from moderately revised to completely rewritten later. When you release yourself from this notion that what you see now is who they’ll be forever, it might be a little easier to forgive the lapses in effort that seem to trouble you far more than they do your kids.

Thanks to those of you who submitted questions. If you’ve got one you’d like to toss in for consideration, you can submit yours here. I’ll answer another one next week.