25 Feb 2021

Getting unmotivated sons moving

From Nine To Noon, 11:29 am on 25 February 2021

Anyone with teenage sons knows that getting them to move off the couch can be akin to trying to move a mountain.

Maggie Dent talks with Kathryn about how to "unstick" unmotivated sons. She is the mother of four boys, a former teacher and counsellor who has become one of Australia's foremost parenting experts - and self-described "boy champion".

Her latest book is called From Boys to Men, and she is also the host of the ABC podcast Parental as Anything. She is about to run a webinar series based on her book.

Close Up of Young Teenage Boy Wearing Hoodie and Winter Cap Looking Remorseful While Leaning on Arms in Kitchen with Broken Mug on Table

Photo: 123RF

Dent says boys tend to need external experiences with which they give themselves self-worth.

“A lot of the things they start looking at, particularly on the teen journey, is what’s in it for them, and will this make them look good. So, of course, they can have problems in school in that area because they think, why would I need to learn that, that’s not going to make my life better.

“But when we get out the other end and we’re talking about the transition from school when they’re 17 and 18, we would have thought they’re fine now, but that brain is still a really long way from completing.”

She says it’s important to realise that boys aren’t trying to be unreasonable or lazy, there are internal forces at play.

“Motivation is having an internal drive rather than an external one and I’m a bit worried that today’s children have been given stickers, certificates, and prizes hoping to motivate them, but that’s external – that’s one of the challenges we have for today’s generation.

“The three main things, and this will explain why our boys are so motivated when it comes to gaming, are control, competence, and connection. In other words, they need to have some control or autonomy over whatever they’re doing.”

For instance, we can’t force a boy to get off the couch, one needs to find ways to do that.

“The second is that we’ve got to find something he’s good at that makes him feel good about himself… they can get drowned in the negative bias around being 18 and being a boy particularly.

“The last one is that connection. When we have people that genuinely stand beside us, hold a light for us and love us even when we do all those things we just mentioned, it does give us a much better chance to get some motivation happening again.”

She says a good way of fostering internal motivation is to be a bit hands off and not give them too much help with their homework, for instance, and ensure they’re taking responsibility for things like their own washing.

Another thing is ‘positive noticing’ for when boys do these things on their own without prompting.

“When they actually hear and acknowledgement and think, ‘gee, yeah I did do that’, we are building that internal locus of control. Building those things gradually is incredibly important.”

Dent says that taking too big a leap in trying to motivate boys can paralyse them even more, so taking a gradual approach is much more productive.

While it might seem like an anathema, if a boy is seriously into his gaming it can be a good idea to watch them in their element in a highly motivated state and show that you’re impressed with their skills and ask whether they’d be interested in things like coding.

If you really need to get your boy moving, Dent says rewards can be a good option but money or objects should not be offered.

“The best reward for an unmotivated boy is creating an opportunity for him and his mates to do something they significantly like whether it’s a night at the movies, a pizza night at home, going camping, etc, where the target is it will be something that makes him look good within his group and his status in the group gets improved as well as him getting a sense of enjoyment.

“Absolutely there is a place in moving inertia with reward but it’s a really big trap because your boys will keep wanting it. It’s got to be something that’s fairly significant and worthwhile.”