by Laurie Detweiler
Many parents have experienced the same of a distracted child.
Jenny was sitting in church desperately trying 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.
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 had taken apart the toilet to see how it worked, or gone out the back door without telling anyone so he could dig a hole to look for worms. Dennis had only two speeds: ON and sleep. He couldn’t seem to sit still, and he was constantly asking questions: Why? How?
Jenny’s other children had not been this way. They seemed compliant and understood boundaries. But not Dennis. Though his teacher said he was unmotivated, Jenny saw how he figured things out when he wanted to. One day she found him reading his older sister’s chemistry textbook to learn how combustion worked. He told Jenny all about it. This child was not dumb or unmotivated―he was just DISTRACTED. He seemed unable to sit still for much of anything―unless, of course, he was extremely interested in it.
For many of us this story hits home. It seems like “our Dennis” can’t reach his full potential. He can’t pay attention long enough to learn. He doesn’t seem motivated. We go from being angry with him to being in tears over him.
MYTHS OF MOTIVATION
- My children are not motivated.
It’s not that they are not motivated; they are just not motivated the way we think they should be. All human behavior is motivated. If you were reading a book and stopped, 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.
So, how do we motivate? We replace the expectation of failure with the expectation of success. If your child is having a difficult time doing forty-five minutes of math, replace the expectation with fifteen minutes, and 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.
- My children are motivated one day, 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. In all marriages there are ups and downs. You and your spouse may have a disagreement, but that doesn’t mean you quit loving him. The disagreement causes a temporary annoyance―an interference―but your love is permanent. We have to be very careful to distinguish between distraction and motivation.
- Competition is a great motivator.
Not all children respond well to competition. For some it is a motivator, but for others, using competition can do more harm than good.
Imagine that you keep a chart for chores and schoolwork. Your four children’s names are on the chart, but there are bright shiny stars after only three of their names on a regular basis. Guess which child never gets stars? The distracted one. Do you think he will keep trying for stars? Of course not. In fact, he will usually quit and develop a bad attitude about himself and his siblings because of “that stupid chart.”
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR THE DISTRACTED CHILD
- Tailor school to your child.
One of our children fit the distracted-child mold perfectly. He is brilliant. (Yes, I am his Mama, but it’s true.) During his senior year in high school, we knew we needed to do things differently because he was bored. My husband decided to let him have some fun with calculus. This kid has always had a business mind, so Marlin taught him to use an HP12C―a financial calculator. He loved it.
Because of his love of entrepreneurship, we also decided we would study the industrialists. He never liked sitting and reading, but when we gave him books about, or by, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller, he was hooked. He loved seeing the insights they had and how they changed society.
It isn’t that we didn’t get all the basics done. We did. He needed to graduate, but we also let him find out who he was. Looking back, we wish that we had done this earlier. Trying to fit him into a uniform mold did not work.
- Don’t force extra work on a child who is bored.
If you have an easily distracted child who has a hard time getting all his math problems done, consider having him do twenty problems instead of thirty-two. But you need to pay careful attention here: don’t do this if children are lazy; do this if they are bored.
Because one of my sons was pulling ninety-six percent on his tests, he was told he could do fifteen of the thirty-two problems as long as he maintained that grade. If children are not capable of this, then they need to do all the problems.
- Cater to your child’s interests.
Do you have a child who is really struggling to read? Find out what interests him. One of our boys loved bugs and animals. The same child really hated to read. But it was amazing how he dove in when he wanted to learn how to build a frog habitat. He went from hardly reading to deciphering adult-level manuals about frogs.
- Discover your child’s best environment.
Experts differ about environment. Some people say that you should find one consistent spot for your child to do his work and make it as free from distractions as possible. I found that changing the environment periodically and having classical music playing softly in the background actually helped. The bigger issue for me was to be nearby—particularly for grammar school.
“Complacent children are easy for us―they don’t disrupt our lives. But you know what else? They probably aren’t going to change the world. Your distracted children, however, very possibly will!”
Please don’t be disheartened. There is not only hope but success waiting for you. Distracted children are not going to be like you unless you are distracted too, but they are amazingly gifted and will surprise you in ways you may not imagine.
Encourage your child right from the beginning. So often these children grow up thinking all they ever do is wrong. Imagine if all day long someone told you that what you were doing was wrong―what would you begin to think about yourself? Instead, remind your child that he is made in the image of God and we are all gifted in different ways by our Creator. Then, tell him how he needs to use those gifts for his betterment. But also explain that because of the way he is wired, he needs to learn how to get things done.
Distracted children may march to the beat of a different drummer, but they are beautifully and wonderfully made and may be the next Thomas Edison, Robert Frost, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrew Carnegie, Albert Einstein, or Bill Gates. Those people not only changed our world, but they were the very ones written off by some of their teachers due to their distracted natures.
Don’t wish your child to be complacent at the expense of being creative or forward thinking. Complacent children are easy for us―they don’t disrupt our lives. But you know what else? They probably aren’t going to change the world. Your distracted children, however, very possibly will!
Laurie Detweiler is a vice-president and owner of Veritas Press and has authored and published numerous books and curricular products. She and her husband, Marlin, have four boys. This article first appeared in the The Virginia Home Educator, Summer2015.