Jenny was sitting in church trying desperately to listen to the sermon, but her mind kept wandering, thinking about having to pick Dennis up from his Sunday school class. Every Sunday the knot in her stomach accompanied her as she traveled to church. She just knew people thought she was a terrible mother. They looked at her with that look only a mother knows. Dennis was the most wonderful little boy. At age eight, he was inquisitive and into everything. If you turned your back for one moment, he’d take apart the toilet—trying to see how it worked—or he’d go out the back door to dig a hole in the yard, looking for worms. Dennis had only two speeds: On and Sleeping. He couldn’t seem to sit still, and he was constantly asking questions: Why this? or How could that be?
To be honest, Jenny found him exhausting. Her other children had not been this way. They seemed compliant and understood boundaries. But not Dennis. His teacher said he was unmotivated. She even made Jenny think he was dumb—but Jenny knew better. She saw how he figured things out—mostly those things that interested him. One day she found him with his older sister’s chemistry book. He was reading it to learn how combustion worked. He told Jenny all about it. This child was anything but dumb; he was just distracted. He seemed unable to sit still for anything, unless he was extremely interested in it.
For many of us, this story hits home. It frequently seems like our “Dennis” just can’t reach his full potential. He can’t pay attention long enough to learn. He just doesn’t seem motivated. We go from being angry with him to being in a puddle of tears.
It’s time to end the myths.
It’s not that they aren’t motivated. They are just not motivated the way we think they should be. Richard Lavoie has some wonderful thoughts on this in his book The Motivation Breakthrough. All human behavior is motivated. Say you were reading a book but then stopped reading it. It can’t be said that you were not motivated because you quit reading the book. Actually, you were motivated to quit reading the book. For children who are struggling with something, the struggle may be their motivation to quit.
What Is the Solution?
Simply stated, we need to replace the expectation of failure with the expectation of success. If your child has a difficult time sitting and doing forty-five minutes of math, getting in trouble every day because he doesn’t get it done, replace the expectation with fifteen minutes, then be delighted over the success. Then look for opportunities to increase the time gradually—maybe five minutes at a time—while still enjoying the same success.
Another myth we need to eliminate is that one day they are motivated and the next day they are not. Those who study behavior tell us that motivation is constant. The child who is motivated to learn math is motivated to learn it all the time. Look at it this way. You love your spouse, but in all marriages there are ups and downs. You may have a disagreement, but that doesn’t mean you quit loving your spouse. The disagreement causes a temporary annoyance, an interference, but your love is permanent. We have to be very careful to distinguish distraction from motivation.
Yet another myth is that competition is a great motivator. Not all children respond well to competition. For some it is a motivator, but if it is not, using competition can do more harm than good. Imagine a scenario in your household where you keep a chart (which I have done) for getting the children’s chores and schoolwork done. The chart regularly displays shiny gold stars next to three of your four children’s names. Guess which child never gets gold stars? The distracted one. Do you think this child will keep trying to earn stars? Of course not; in fact, he will usually quit and develop a bad attitude about himself and his siblings because of “that dumb chart.”
By now, you may be more discouraged than when you started reading. Please don’t be. There is not only hope, but success waiting for you. What you have to realize is that, although children in this mold may not be the “same” as you (unless you are distracted), they are amazingly gifted, and they will surprise you in ways you may not imagine. You need to work with your child to see what techniques and strategies work for them. Sit down with your child no matter how young they are, and encourage them for who they are. Talk about how we are all gifted in different ways by our Creator, and they are made in the image of God. Then, talk about how they need to use what may be perceived by some as negative for their betterment. But also explain that, because of the way they are wired, they need to learn how to get things done, so they can use their other gifts.
You know, it’s funny. When there is a child who sits docilely in Sunday school and answers questions right on, but is not very creative or forward thinking, our society doesn’t think, “Hey, that child is going to lead a boring life, just plugging along. Too bad they aren’t more of a mover and a shaker.” You know why, don’t you? It’s because they are easy for us, they don’t disrupt our lives. But you know what else? They probably aren’t going to change the world.
Here Are Some Practical Tips
Set expectations realistically. Let me explain. One of our children fit the distracted child mold perfectly. While he was in his senior year in high school, we knew we needed to do things differently. He was bored. He was studying calculus, but my husband decided to teach him to use an HP-12C, which is a financial calculator. And he loved it. It helped his mind to soar, and you wouldn’t believe how it has contributed to what he does today.
We also decided that, because of his love of entrepreneurship, we would study the industrialists. He never liked sitting and reading a book, but when we introduced books about Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, JP Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller, he was hooked. He loved learning about their insights and how they had changed society. Believe me, you can have an awesome worldview discussion about this.
I don’t want you to think that we didn’t get all the basics done. We did. This child needed to graduate, but we also let him find out who he was. Looking back, we wish we had done this earlier. Trying to fit him into a mold that was different than who he was did not work.
If you have a child who is easily distracted, and she has a hard time getting all her math problems done, consider assigning twenty problems instead of thirty-two. She is not lazy; she is bored. A teacher used to tell another of my sons that he could do fifteen of the thirty-two problems as long as he was pulling a 96 percent on the test. Guess who regularly scored a 96? (If they are not capable of this, then they need to do all the problems.) Do you have a child who is really struggling to read? Find out what interests him. One of our boys loved frogs. The same child really hated to read. But it was amazing how he dove into a book when he needed to figure out how to build a frog habitat. We did it all, from tadpoles to frogs, and he went from hardly reading to reading manuals for adults on frogs. I had to sit and patiently help him to decode words, but he wanted to try.
Some experts say to have one consistent spot for your child to do her work, and remove distractions as much as possible. I have found that changing the environment can actually help. The bigger issue was for me to be nearby—particularly in grammar school. I have also found that having classical music playing softly in the background can be helpful. We were partial to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.
Most of all, be encouraged! These children are usually the innovators in our society. You may be the parent of the next Thomas Edison, Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, or Bill Gates. These are not only some of the adults who changed our world, but ones who were written off by some of their teachers due to their distracted natures. So often, these children grow up thinking all they ever do is wrong. They hear “no” so often that they no longer hear the word when you say it.
Remember, God made these children in His image. They are beautifully and wonderfully made. These are amazing kids, but they just don’t fit into our box. I have often said about one of my own: he goes to the beat of a different drummer. And that’s OK.
Copyright 2019, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.