Growing Motivated Children Starts with Relationship

I often wonder what day of the week my dad gave up on his life.

He simply stopped caring, stopped trying, and eventually checked out entirely. Contemplating his fall from grace as a singular day event is how I try to wrap my head around something that is so elusive and hard to understand: what creates motivation or the lack thereof.

My dad lost all the motivation he ever had…and he never got it back.

All the work he had done to build up a life worthy of admiration became utterly inconsequential in what seemed like a slow exhale. He had worked hard for so long, motivated to compete well in four sports through high school, achieve high merits as a cadet at the prestigious US Military Academy at West Point, complete an engineering and law degree, and become a patent attorney and partner in a large law firm. He was the poster-child for how motivation can lead to achievement and success.

And then he walked away from all of it.

Watching his slide to homelessness forced me to consider whether there was any point to motivation at all. I am still not decided about what might have happened to my dad, but since motivation is  necessary to move through life purposefully, I had to consider whether I would, or could, encourage a healthier balance of motivation for myself and for our children.

Because of Choosing to Grow projects, I have had to look at my own source of motivation. For the bulk of my life as a student, athlete, young teacher, newlywed, new parent, and fledgling coach I sought achievement partially because I was thrust into a battle to move beyond the shame that lived in my childhood home.  I was motivated to please people, to evoke pride in those around me, and to cover up the parts of myself that felt unworthy. It was an effective, but dangerous form of motivation. You see this story a lot, in the difficult or tough “backstories” that create some of the world’s highest achievers. I came to a crossroads when I was done with achieving that way.

Through difficult work to get healthy, I have learned to personally set worthy and achievable goals that are not necessarily measured in terms of the world’s view on success. Even bigger than that, my husband and I have focused on teaching our kids healthy motivation too. We wanted them to learn to be hard workers, to aim for goals, and to seek achievement but we set out to encourage that in them without breaking them or leading them to what might be their singular quitting day.

Raising kids to be appropriately motivated is probably one of the most difficult asks of parenting.

My husband and I are not done raising children, but our two oldest are almost 20 and 18 years old. At this point, I am willing to make the case that we struck a pretty good balance in our house and although the approach has been different for each of them, so far we’ve been able to instill healthy motivation in all three of our kids. Our children are appropriately motivated to work hard, they are intent on pursuing success in a number of ways, and you want to know what I think worked? Growing motivation in our kids happened because we intentionally worked on relationships with them as our highest priority.

It is not a novel idea, but sticking to relationship as priority above all other parenting decisions is harder than it might seem, especially when it comes to raising children in an overtly achievement-oriented environment like sports. It is human nature to want our children to achieve. We want them to be the goal-scorer, to be the one who gets the best grades, to be the most well-liked or influential. As soon as we can set aside our own desires for their achievement and build relationship with them instead, we can  encourage them to be the best version of themselves. Then, magical things are possible.

So, how do we build and maintain healthy relationships with our children?

There are many ways to grow healthy relationships, but I want to focus on two of the biggest ones in our house: Good Communication and Autonomy.

GOOD COMMUNICATION is more about active listening than it is about monologue instruction and it is a learned behavior. Asking good questions will yield important answers. The key to building authentic relationship with people begins with seeking out and hearing what someone else has to say. This is not a free pass for kids to say they want something and parents comply, but rather fostering a strategy of communication so kids learn how to identify and then communicate their needs and desires from a very early age and honoring those communications with curious conversation.

Once communication lines are open, conversation about how kids are utilizing gifts, what difference they are offering to the world, and what sport is doing to prepare them for that, changes the conversations around sport participation entirely. It is a deeper, broader, more comprehensive conversation than what stats they have for the game, whether they won or lost, and what team they will try out for next. Sports are an activity meant to enhance relationship. Real communication is not idle chatter and it takes intentionality to speak with our kids not at them.

Kids need AUTONOMY. Heck, people need autonomy.

Autonomy is defined as the right or condition of self-government. Making our own decisions and recognizing natural and legitimate consequences for those decisions is one of the most important gifts we can give to our children. “So, you want to have a sleepover the night before two games? Hmm. I think you will probably be disappointed with your performance, but if you think that’s a good idea, we can give it a shot.” After the second game with horrid performance, the kid realizes that those choices were not all that good. Letting them make what we know is a bad decision (within safe confines of course) and then letting them talk through the natural consequences brings them into a space of self-governance.

As soon as kids can have a conversation about their choices, and the more opportunity they have to try them out, the better. “It doesn’t look like you really want to be playing soccer right now, is that right? Ok. Well since you signed up for this season, we’ll finish, but then after that, let’s find something else you want to try.”

If you want to dig deeper into other ways to think about motivation, here is a link presenting several Theories of Motivation 

In our house, it has worked to put our relationships with our kids first. Relationships are fluid. If you are going to pursue relationship authentically, it means approaching engagement with another human being with a growth mindset in every encounter. The mother-baby relationship is really different than the teenage-daughter- mother relationship and if we are going to effectively engage in relationship throughout the raising of children, we need to continually fashion ourselves around that dynamic reality. Everyone evolves and changes each day of their lives and if we step into engagement with other people with curiosity about how to relate best for that particular day, we have the capacity to engage in someone else’s present reality.

Because my husband and I invested in learning about our kids as they grew, stopped and started with our own efforts to be the sort of people who could relate well with them right where they were, we’ve been able to create pretty good lines of communication. This was not a perfect exercise, but that in conjunction with our belief to defend autonomy has bolstered our efforts to grow both motivation and our relationships with our kids.


Copyright 2020 Meagan Frank

Choosing to Grow

Team Adult Playbook


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