October 27, 2015

Unmotivated…or Something Else?

July 2011 - Our Annual Fourth of July Get-Together

One morning last week, my younger daughter called me to the kitchen table, asking, “Can I have help?”

The question didn’t alarm me because she asks nearly every day right after working through a lesson in her homeschool math book. She generally comprehends the material well and simply wants clarification on a few problems before typing the answers into the computer.

But that day was different. As I pulled up a chair, she kept her head down, face buried in an arm draped over the math book. And even when I asked where we needed to start, she didn’t respond. Then after a few minutes, she finally looked up and exclaimed, “I don’t remember how to do any of this!”

I knew that wasn’t true. We’d taken a break from our usual routine for a few days, but I was certain she’d not really forgotten. Yet I could also see that only a handful of the 20 questions were answered.

Purposing to be gentle, I nudged her into examining the first problem. The process was like pulling teeth – without anesthetic; it was clear her mind was elsewhere. I guided her through a few more problems, but we stopped at number five because she couldn’t even speak the answer I’d let her use the calculator to cipher. Instead, she just silently mouthed it as tears filled her eyes.

Though math is not her favorite subject, she hadn’t actually lost her ability to comprehend. Nor was she exhibiting disobedience or belligerence to get out of doing her work. But her motivation to focus on the nuts and bolts of the lesson had, indeed, temporarily disappeared, replaced with deep grief.

You see, a few days earlier, her only grandfather had succumbed to the effects of COPD and cancer. So instead of honing in on pre-algebra, her mind was wrestling with the reality that she’d never again see her beloved grandpa on this side of Heaven. And though his passing was not unexpected and she does cling to the hope of Heaven in Christ, her heart was ripped by this, the first significant human loss she’s suffered.

I’d not been an ogre by asking her to do math. We’d taken a couple days off after getting the news, and we’d all decided together that we’d try to “kind of get back to normal.” But I was fully prepared to adjust as needed, so that’s as far as we got with math that day. It would keep.

Kids – and adults – are always motivated by something; there’s no such thing as an “unmotivated” person. However, they’re not always motivated as we think they “ought” to be. Sometimes that’s an obedience issue. But we do our kids a grave disservice if we assume that their “misplaced motivation” is always wrong.

My girls and I didn’t err in attempting to “be normal” that day; getting back into routine after a loved one’s death is sometimes therapeutic. However, I would have damaged my daughter if I’d ignored her heart in favor of making her slog through solving for unknown quantities. When our kids struggle, we need to resist labeling them as “unmotivated.” Instead – if we seek to be responsible parents – we must dig to find the root of the difficulty, and then help them manage it appropriately.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
(Ecclesiastes 3.1, ESV)

January 2015 - A Belated Christmas Celebration


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