Dear Dr. Ash,
I have a lazy teenager (15). I have figured out that his laziness is, in part, because he lacks any internal motivation to be successful. I partly blame myself because I have “over taken care of him.” As a child, I never had anyone taking care of me. I took care of myself. So, now as a parent, I think I am taking too good care of my child to compensate for that.
First, is internal motivation something I can teach my son? If so, how? If not, how can I turn this situation around without turning into a shrew of a mother?
Signed – I Don’t Wanna Shrew it Up!
Hey Don’t Wanna Shrew it Up!
Internal motivation is definitely a thing. The best way to cultivate internal motivation is to help people connect with why a certain thing is important to them. Getting “good grades” in grade school didn’t matter at all to me (for example) and I got really poor grades. But when I got to high school I learned that grades would determine if I was able to go away to a good (and interesting) college once I graduated. This was enough to motivate me to work harder in school.
Different people also have different expectations and standards of what’s appropriate and what’s “good enough” and what they even notice (say, in the case of tidiness). I remember when I got to college my college roommate telling me at one point, about 2/3rds of the way through the year “do you realize that I pick up your soda can every day and put it in the garbage?”
The honest to goodness truth is that I hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t noticed at all.
Not everyone notices things like this as much as others. I am capable of overlooking a pile of clothing on a chair for weeks before it gets to the point where I have to do something about it. It just doesn’t bother me the same way it bothers other people.
The problem comes when other people decide that this “isn’t good enough” and “needs to shift”. I’m not a sloppy person by any means. I clean up sticky or dirty things like dishes quite quickly. But clutter, especially when I was younger, just didn’t phase me.
So if we’re talking about a specific degree of tidiness, then this can definitely be a matter of personal preference. And the desire to control the child and make them the same degree of tidiness that you find acceptable may instead cause you to “do it yourself” rather than nag and feel rude. Or wait on them to do it.
But what’s going on here is part of the toxic cycle of Everyday Codependency. You’re sacrificing your own happiness because of your belief that the other person needs to meet your expectations in order for you to feel happy.
Now, let’s extend this idea to the notion of say doing laundry. Every child at a certain age has to learn to do their own laundry. It’s never too late to learn. However, if you fear that you’re asking your child to do too much by asking them to take care of their own laundry then that’s again about you wanting to control how your child perceives you. Whether your child is perceived by others as clean or sloppy. So perhaps you teach your child to do his own laundry and then you let it go. If he chooses to wear dirty pants or stained clothing to school than that’s what he’s choosing. (again, you don’t even want to know how long I would go between washing my jeans or my sheets in college. It makes me shudder now).
You fear allowing your child to make their own mistakes and fail. If your son figures out that girls don’t like him when he stinks. Or that he hates the way his clothes feel when they have sand in them. But he’ll need to encounter something that will motivate him to do something differently. Then, and only then, might he begin to feel motivated to do things differently. But ONLY if you let him do make mistakes and fail. Only if you let him get uncomfortable first. If you continue to take care of the issue for him he will just wait until you’ll do it. Discomfort is generally a requirement to change something. So you must allow your child to experience the discomfort of his choices rather than protecting him from it!
You’re afraid of setting boundaries. Setting boundaries isn’t so much about the setting of the initial boundary, but about the reassertion of the boundary. If the dog (for example) knows you’ll let him on the couch eventually. He’ll just wait you out to avoid sitting on the floor – giving you those puppy dog eyes the whole time. Just like your son who may wait you out till you eventually cave and do his laundry for him if he knows you’ll do it eventually. A boundary is “this is something you now need to do yourself” and standing by that boundary. Again and again. Especially when it gets uncomfortable.
You’re assuming that your child’s level of motivation is your own personal failure instead of about your child. This is not fair. You need to let your child’s choices (especially once they hit a certain age) be about what they choose to do. If you continue to take responsibility for his choices then you will continue to shield him from failure, from making mistakes, and ultimately from learning. Because failing and making mistakes is essential to learning. But when you blame yourself if he fails or makes mistakes than you feel responsible for fixing those issues and so tend to swoop in so that you don’t feel bad.
You may be too invested in being “liked” by your children instead of cultivating what will be good for them. Asserting and reasserting boundaries does not make you a shrew. Yes, there are certain points when it begins to lean into nagging land. But that’s the point when you stop nagging and you start allowing the other person to feel the impact of their decisions.
Bet you never really thought about it that way (#3). That the real reason you take care of your son and these issues is to save yourself the discomfort of feeling bad or feeling like you failed. Especially if you’ve ever felt as though your parents failed you you may be overcompensating so that you’re “not like them”.
Drop the fears and allow your son to be who he is. Stop judging yourself. Allow him to make his own mistakes and learn his own lessons. And hold fast to your boundaries with him and what you expect of him. I highly suggest writing down specific expectations and standing by them. Perhaps dishes in the sink and laundry done on his own. Then he knows exactly what’s expected of him.
Anxiety. Fear. Playing Small. Stuckness.
You’re living in a prison of your own making.
It’s time to change that forever.