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Motivate Your Child to Learn...With Pirates!

Have you ever struggled through a homeschool lesson that should be easy, but the miserable attitude of your little one made you both want to scream and throw the papers in the air in frustration? Ok maybe I'm alone...but I'm betting at some point we've all been there. Maybe it's just a certain subject that brings the whines and the "why's" out of your little one without fail. Or maybe the thought of teaching anything at all makes you wince. If this rings true, read on - there is HOPE!!

My Dream Homeschool Day vs. "The Reality"

The bottom line is that attitude is everything when it comes to learning! A happy and willing child can make the day bright, the work light, and before you know it, after a few enjoyable lessons shared together, you're done before lunchtime with everything you needed to do, and you ALL have time to play the rest of the day until Dad gets home! I sincerely believe that's every homeschool mom's dream. I mean, if we were doing it by ourselves without kids in tow, that's how it would go, right? I know it would for me! Looking back, I think I was that kind of self-driven highly motivated learner naturally, so when I really started to homeschool my kids in earnest, I couldn't understand why our days were looking so different from that ideal and my own happy memory of learning. I started to wonder how I was failing so hard at something I enjoy and should be able to do well (teaching), and why I had been blessed with a stubborn little lad who was starting to oppose any and every learning opportunity I offered with everything he had in him, simply because I was the one asking him to do it!

Teaching an Unmotivated Kid is HARD on Everyone

Needless to say, with the conflict brewing, we didn't get much learned, and we started to tire each other out until we both were dreading each attempt at a forced lesson. I have SO much sympathy for moms who don't want to teach their kids because asking them to do work always becomes a power struggle full of complaints (whether they homeschool or not!). I may have loved learning, but I know I struggled with my parents over music lessons, and I feel bad for that (especially since I now see what could have been done at that time to increase my own motivation!). I think in our test-driven education system, this distaste for the unfulfilling process of "school" has almost become the norm rather than the exception, and it's sad that very few teachers are able to work around the system in order to genuinely foster love of learning for the sake of learning, which has nothing to do with regurgitating something for the tests that drive the boondoggle. And parents are often left with unmotivated, unhappy kids as a result! That's not what learning is all about!

Learning and Gardening are Surprisingly Similar

Honestly, in a discontent, disinterested or hostile atmosphere, not much learning can possibly take place. Learning is a lot like gardening - a child's soil has to be good (a receptive, motivated, willing attitude) before the seed (the lesson) is planted, otherwise nothing will take root and grow (with repetition, practicing and revisiting the material). When you have a sprout, there is understanding, and when the plant is fully grown, they are able to explain the subject to others and draw on it as a foundation for complex problem-solving, thought or argument. Really, there is no shortcut for this process. And the end result is truly as beautiful as a garden! But like the parable says, seeds sown on dry, rocky soil will get you nowhere.

But what then can we do about an unmotivated child?

The Parenting Dilemma

I had found myself in a conundrum. I love learning. My son did not. He was highly motivated to do his own thing, and my interruptions were seen as a power-play or punishment, which he fought at every turn. He decided he did not want to learn and he "hated" math and violin and especially reading. This was rocky soil that needed to be amended, fast! So I started digging in. The problem wasn't his ability - he had plenty of that. It had nothing to do with schoolwork at all - the curricula we use are awesome. And moreover, I was not going to have his character defined by the road his youth and ignorance had chosen - he will not internalize that he's a kid who "hates learning" on my watch! The root of the problem was that he simply was unmotivated to do what I asked him to do. Ok then. Redirect and grow his motivation, the attitude would change, and he would do what he needed to do without any fight. Like any other area of one's character, this is a learning process that can be taught, right? There had to be systems to teach a little one to self-motivate. I looked. Nothing. So I went back to the basics. What motivates adults? Adapt that theory, and use it to develop my own system.

The root of the problem was that he simply was unmotivated to do what I asked him to do. Redirect and grow his motivation, then the attitude would change, and he would do what he needed to do without any fight.

I tried a lot of different things to motivate him, with minimal success. But when I finally landed on Daniel Pink's theory outlined in the book, Drive, I knew I had it. According to Pink, there are three parts to intrinsic motivation, and you really can't leave any of them out. I call them the "MAP": MASTERY, AUTONOMY, and PURPOSE. Mastery means that there is definite, quantifiable movement toward the mastery of a subject or skill. Autonomy means that the child himself sees that he has control over his world (in some form or fashion), and is controlling at least a part of what, when, or how he lives out his life. Finally the greater "why am I doing this" question is answered by Purpose, which is a bit harder to grasp for a young child, but in my MAP system, clear and desirable rewards are tied to completing the given work at certain intervals, which produces a driving purpose for young children quite nicely.

Pirates in Port and the MAP System

So, in the end, what came out of my struggle of learning how to motivate my son was the awesome learning resource I developed called Pirates in Port. When I saw what a difference it started to make for him and for me in our homeschool day, I knew I couldn't keep this idea to myself. Every child fights Mom and Dad at some point. Learning how to redirect and support their own intrinsic motivation to align it with our goals for them could possibly be the best skill we can nurture in ourselves as parents for the benefit of our relationship with our kids over time! After three months of doing our homeschool day according to the principles and methods outlined in Pirates, my son would wake up in the morning excited about starting his work and wanting to knock out as many "tokens" as he could before breakfast. Sometimes he would even tell me with excitement he was going to do two days' worth of work at once. Whether he finished it all or not is another story (hey, maybe when he's six), but the reality is that he was taking charge of his own destiny, and he was actually excited about getting his school work done! Yes, he still may grumble here and there at times, but after finishing the Pirates unit, he would no longer fight me over his lessons, period! He simply knows that school is his responsibility, and I am here to help him with his work. The focus has shifted entirely, and he has, I'm happy to report, taken ownership of his learning journey! There's nothing else I could ask for.

I am so happy with the night and day change I've seen in my little guy. I believe with this system, change is possible for any child.

His whole outlook on schoolwork has changed and he is really quite motivated to get the things I have planned for him done now. Honestly, I feel blessed to be able to share this resource with you. If you'd like to learn more about Pirates, this page has a video of the book and some great other information, including a link to purchase. Of course, email me here and I'm happy to answer questions any time. Even if you're not homeschooling, this resource has great ideas that you could implement for any type of behavior or learning you want your little one to be motivated to do. With the right structure designed to grow internal motivation for a young child, the change is not only possible; it's remarkable!

If my work helps you on your journey, I would love to hear your story too!

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