Table Talk: Motivator or Manipulator by Andy Kerckhoff

Today’s guest post is by our friend Andy Kerckhoff. He’s a teacher, an author and blogger at growingupwell - and a parent. So he has special insight and wisdom that I always find interesting. I hope you do as well. Check out Andy’s blog or his his book: Critical Connection: A practical guide to parenting young teens.

Thanks for sharing, Andy … and thanks for walking the road with me.


son Once again, his room isn’t clean, not by any standard. Her backpack, jacket, and shoes are scattered about the floor of the hall, again. His grades are sub-par in math, again. She is making the family late to school, again. He seems to be nonchalant about his music audition this weekend. She isn’t running enough to prepare for soccer tryouts next week.

How do you approach the lack of motivation: carrot or stick?

What’s the best approach: direct confrontation, positive affirmation, a new system of consequences? Push hard or back off? Constructive criticism?

Who knows? It’s a minefield, to say the least.

It’s a thin line between motivating your child and provoking him or her to rebellion. Motivating a child, especially a teenager, is not an easy road. There will be resistance, mistakes and regrets, and that is if you are doing it right.

For example, my son loves to play guitar. When he first started playing, there were times when I pushed him too hard. I felt that he needed to learn his scales and play with a purpose at times, rather than just play for fun. I provoked him to anger occasionally. At other times, I employed an easy-going attitude toward him playing the same riffs over and over for fun. And sometimes I regretted that.

It’s a tough call. Nobody wants to be too tough or too soft. It’s a fine line to walk.

In addition, the thin line seems to move whimsically. One day, it’s here and another it’s there. One day you have a great conversation that challenges your daughter to work harder in school, and the next day she is in tears at the slightest mention of schoolwork. One day you motivate, the next day you provoke.

But the way I see it, you have to be willing to be seen as the bad guy. You have to be willing to step over the line occasionally, even if it means regretting it later. But if you step over that line too often, then you are pushing way too hard. Motivation can become manipulation. It can be a slippery slope.

If your child feels provoked and discouraged daily, then you have a big problem on your hands. The Bible explicitly warns: “Fathers, do not provoke your children or they will become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21). Apparently, fathers have been pushing too hard for thousands of years, and they probably always will.

But I contend that it’s our role as parents to push the limits occasionally. Not that we want to intentionally go over the edge, but we need to push to the edge now and then. For example, in soccer it’s best to use the whole field. Don’t just keep the ball in the middle. Don’t be afraid to send it to the edges, even if it occasionally goes out of bounds on accident. If you never cross the line, then you are not pushing hard enough. Yes, you need to push often enough to warrant an apology occasionally.

I recall when my high school basketball coach told me that I needed to foul more. What? He thought I was playing too safe, too nice, too careful. He said that I should get about three fouls per game. Seriously. He knew that I needed to be more aggressive, that I was not likely to foul out. He was right. I became a better player, and I didn’t foul out often, hurt anybody, or become a hacker.

I think some of us parent too safely. We are too timid, too afraid that if we tick off our child that he or she will spin out of control in some way. Or we are too aggressive, too afraid to let our child make his or her own mistakes and suffer the consequences.

Conversely, if you never back away and let your kid fall short of an expectation or make some mistakes, then you are a control freak. You need to learn to back off. Not all the time. Just some of the time. You need to be willing to do nothing and perhaps regret it later. That’s right. You should occasionally regret your decision to not say something.

After all, not all motivation should be extrinsic. In fact, the best motivation is intrinsic. Therefore, you need to let your child determine his or her motivation now and then.

So, stop playing it so safe. Don’t be afraid to mix it up. Don’t always be “Mr. Consistent” who never makes his child uncomfortable.

Instead, be more like the coach who motivates his players to the point where they are playing to win, unafraid of making mistakes. So what if the ball goes out of bounds occasionally? Who cares if the ref calls a foul now and then?

I am not a fan of any form of extreme parenting. I think that too-safe parenting is extreme. Don’t be afraid to step in and motivate. And don’t be afraid to step back and observe, rather than navigate. Use the whole field, as they say in soccer. Don’t worry about getting called off-sides now and then. And be willing to let the kids play, free of your constant barrage of instructions from the sidelines.

Be confident that you are capable of making the right choices, and you are capable of dealing with some parenting mistakes. For if you are doing your job as a parent well, then you will push too hard at times and you will pull back too much at times. It’s ok. It’s better than playing it too safe.

Be a good motivator, but don’t be a constant manipulator.

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