Yes, it is for your kids’ own good that they study hard.
But you shouldn’t tell them that.
Because if you do, they’ll be less likely to study hard.
(I’ve spoken to and worked with more than 25,000 students, so I say this with confidence.)
In this article, I’ll provide an explanation.
I’ll also share three tips to help your kids develop intrinsic motivation.
Don’t expect your kids to get an education in school
This might sound strange, so hear me out.
We live in a world where knowledge abounds.
It’s incredible that most of this knowledge is available for free online – you just have to seek it out.
A couple of decades ago, to get an education you had almost no choice but to attend school.
If you’re diligent about taking these courses, you’d acquire more skills and knowledge than you would in almost any traditional school.
This means that, over time, the diplomas and degrees that schools give out will matter less.
It also means that students shouldn’t go to school expecting to get an education. Rather, school should form just one part of a student’s education.
In the future, diplomas and degrees won’t be the ticket to a well-paying job and a comfortable life. (This is already starting to be the case.)
But for now, such certificates still matter.
Statistics show that students who perform better in school are more likely to get jobs that pay better.
And students who study hard are obviously more likely to perform well in school.
Which means that if you want to motivate your kids, you should tell them to work hard in school for their own benefit, right?
Allow me to explain.
3 reasons it’s ineffective to tell your kids to study hard for their own good
Reason #1: Students today aren’t hungry for a “better life”
In developed countries today, most children and teenagers have more material things than they need.
More toys than they need.
More shoes than they need.
More clothes than they need.
More electronic devices than they need.
In contrast, one or two generations ago, most people experienced real hardship.
For example, my parents and grandparents grew up with far less (materially speaking) than I did.
From an early age, it was obvious to my parents that if they wanted to have a more comfortable life in the future, they needed to work hard in school.
Their teachers and parents told them that education was the key to success – and in that era, it was true.
Today, young people already lead lives of comfort, if not luxury.
Not all of them realise this, but some do.
For example, I know a student who dropped out of school at the age of 14 because she hated everything about school.
No matter what her parents said, she refused to go to school.
In a moment of reflection, she said, “You know, I’m not doing anything productive with my life. But my life is still pretty good. I have a smartphone, I have access to the Internet, I have a nice bed to sleep in, and I have air conditioning at home.”
If you live in a developed country, I’m guessing that your kids experience a similar level of material comfort as this 14-year-old girl.
Children and teenagers can’t imagine life without these comforts.
As such, they subconsciously assume that their life will continue to be comfortable, regardless of how hard they try in school.
I’ve worked with a few highly unmotivated students who said to me: “I’ve already calculated how much my inheritance will be. I don’t think I’ll need to work a day in my life.”
I was in disbelief when I heard this.
It was almost as if these students were wishing death upon their parents so they could get their inheritance!
But it just goes to show that many young people assume they won’t need to work hard to maintain their current standard of living.
Because they’ve grown up with so much, they don’t feel the need to work hard so they can own even more “nice” things. They already own plenty of nice things!
This means that the desire to achieve more doesn’t motivate them to study hard in the same way it motivated people one or two generations ago.
This is the first reason why telling your kids to study hard so they can have a “better life” isn’t effective.
Reason #2: Students desperately want to feel as if their lives are significant, but studying doesn’t help them to feel this way
Through my interactions with thousands of students around the world, I’ve come to realise that they all want to feel as if they’re contributing.
When they feel as if they’re contributing, they also feel as if their lives are significant. This is an observation that’s backed up by research.
This, in turn, enables them to be more motivated and purpose-driven overall.
What does this have to do with studying hard?
The direct message students receive in school is that they should study hard to get good grades, so that they’ll be able to get a good job, so that they’ll be able to enjoy a comfortable life (which they are probably already enjoying).
The indirect message students receive is that they won’t make a real contribution until after they’ve completed their formal education.
What’s more, schools tend to emphasise achievement, both in academics and other activities.
But what young people crave is a sense that they’re contributing, that their lives are useful to others.
Students say to me, “If I study hard, I get A’s. If I don’t study hard, I get D’s. Either way, nothing about the world really changes.”
This statement bears more truth than parents and educators would like to admit.
It highlights the fact that students want to make an impact, no matter what their age.
When they don’t have this sense of significance, they turn to social media and games.
Through these platforms, they can build a following, get “likes”, gain admiration for their looks and abilities, and “level up” their characters.
They get a real sense of significance and achievement in the online world, which they might not be able to get in the real world.
Social media and games are entertaining, but they also serve to help young people meet their real needs in a virtual way.
This is a big reason why millions of students around the world are so addicted to social media and games.
In summary, there’s no point telling your kids to study hard for their own good. This is because studying doesn’t give them the sense of significance they so desperately want and need.
Reason #3: The rewards of studying hard are too far in the future
As mentioned earlier, schools tell students the story that they should study hard and do their homework, so they can eventually get a diploma or degree. Thereafter, they can get a well-paying job.
To students, this isn’t an inspiring story.
In addition, for many students, they’re only likely to complete their schooling in 5, 10 or 15 years.
If you ask children or teenagers to wait just one year to get a new phone or game or pet, that already seems like an eternity to them.
But we’re expecting students to work hard in school for the next 5, 10 or 15 years because of the reward they’ll get at the end of the journey?
That’s not going to happen – especially not when young people are growing up in an age of instant gratification.
Even the least motivated students I’ve worked with understand that it’s for their own good that they study hard.
But the benefits that students will reap are too far down the road to keep them motivated.
3 tips to help your kids become self-motivated students
Now that we’ve talked about the three reasons why you shouldn’t tell your kids to study hard for their own good, it’s now time to talk about the alternative approaches that work.
Here are three tips to help your kids develop intrinsic motivation:
Tip #1: Focus more on contribution and less on achievement
One important purpose of education is to equip students with the knowledge and skills so they can make a contribution.
Contribution is the foundation of a meaningful life and of intrinsic motivation.
That’s why it’s especially unfortunate that students rarely think about how they can contribute.
Instead, they’re continually thinking about what they want to – or are “supposed” to – achieve. This leaves them feeling unmotivated and uninspired.
What’s the alternative?
To emphasise contribution above achievement.
Do this in the way you speak to your kids about what goes on in their lives.
Help them to see that there are always ways in which they can help and serve others.
Take practical steps to communicate this message too.
For example, as a family you could get involved in a fortnightly or monthly volunteering activity, such as:
- Helping out at a soup kitchen
- Tutoring younger children
- Doing charity work
I’ve found that students who engage in such activities voluntarily at least a couple of times a month become more aware of their responsibilities toward others.
This helps them to adopt a more positive mindset when it comes to fulfilling their responsibilities as a student.
There’s no point forcing your kids to volunteer if they refuse to, but you can always start by setting a good example for them.
Even at home, there are many ways for your kids to contribute.
For example, they can…
- Help out with chores
- Cook a simple meal for the family once a week
- Plan family celebrations
- Suggest the itinerary for an upcoming family vacation
Overall, I encourage you to move away from the idea that students should only focus on their studies.
If students lead balanced lives that are centred on others, their motivation to acquire knowledge for the benefit of others will increase as well.
Tip #2: Focus more on the process and less on the outcome
Instead of asking your kids what grades they’re getting, turn your attention toward the process by asking questions such as:
- “What did you try hard at?”
- “What risks did you take?”
- “What did you fail at?”
- “What challenges did you face?”
- “What will you do differently next time?”
Share with your kids the challenges you face, and what you’re doing to overcome those challenges.
This approach will remind your kids that the process is what matters, not the outcome.
Emphasise to them that grades are just a form of feedback, and that grades are never an end in themselves.
As the research shows, students who embrace this mindset are more likely to be successful in school and beyond.
Tip #3: Create a culture of learning at home
As a parent, you’re the leader of the home.
Your kids are always watching you, so if you lead by example they’ll be more likely to develop a positive learning attitude.
Periodically share with your kids…
- What books you’ve been reading
- What documentaries you’ve been watching
- What courses you’ve been taking
- What challenges you’ve been facing in your personal and professional life
- What fears you’ve been overcoming
- What skills you’ve been learning
- What character traits you’ve been developing
If you do this in a non-preachy way, your kids will internalise the message that learning is fun.
More importantly, they’ll understand that getting better is its own reward.
And when they believe this for themselves, they’ll study hard because they’ll enjoy the process of learning and improving.
As we wrap up, take a minute to think about the long-term goals you have for your kids.
These goals are probably aligned with many – if not all – of the following statements:
- I want them to be kind
- I want them to be courageous
- I want them to be generous
- I want them to be resilient
- I want them to be grateful
- I want them to be trustworthy
- I want them to be respectful
- I want them to be people of integrity
- I want them to love learning
- I want them to find fulfilment
- I want them to be passionate about serving and helping others
- I want them to build meaningful relationships
- I want them to contribute to their communities
- I want them to lead lives of purpose
Yet somewhere along the way, you may have lost sight of these goals. You may have started to focus on what’s urgent, instead of what’s important.
(As a parent myself, I know it’s so easy to!)
It’s natural for parents to want their kids to perform well in school.
But I encourage you to aim higher than just getting your kids to study hard.
By applying Tips #1, #2 and #3, your kids will be more likely to head down the path of becoming people of character, contribution and commitment.
Then you won’t even need to remind them to study hard!
This transformational journey will take effort – both from you and your kids – but it’ll be worth it.
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