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How to motivate a reluctant child — Good Parenting

Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Headshot2011How to motivate a reluctant child — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I call my son a “stick in the mud.” It’s hard to get him to go anywhere or do anything. By the way, once we’re there, he’s fine with whatever it is. He’s 8-years-old and the middle of our three children. Why can’t he just get with the program from the beginning?

Ready to Go Dad

Don’t miss last week’s column Giving Up the Blankie — Good Parenting

Dear Dad,

Could be several things or a combination at work here. You’ve provided some clues suggesting a personality trait, his stage of development and/or his birth order could be at issue. Your signature also suggests that your personality may be clashing with his.

Personality traits tend to be life-long so it’s great to get a handle on his during his childhood, both to make your expectations about his behavior more predictable, and to help him be comfortable with himself for the long haul. If your son has always been reluctant to jump aboard, but goes with the flow once he’s in it, he has the trait behavioral scientists call “slow to warm up.” He’s a “watcher” as opposed to a “risk taker.” He’ll be wary of new places, people, and activities, and it will be hard for you to tear him away from any activity he is currently engaged in. A person with this trait operates best with set schedules to each day and week, and advance notice — and repeated reminders — of special events. He may fall apart or freeze up if asked to be the first to do anything. As a watcher, he would prefer to stand back to see how it goes for someone else before he jumps (or tiptoes) in.

Age is often a factor in understanding children’s behavior. Being 8-years-old, he will be more interested in doing anything so long as he can bring a friend along. This is the age of close attention to peer culture. Eight-year-olds are studying the language, dress, eating habits, musical tastes, moral standards, etc. of other 8-year-olds. They learn this best by spending a lot of time with one another. You could take an extra 8-year-old along to get the car’s oil changed, and they will be fascinated with each other’s opinions and observations of the experience. You could even assign your son and his friend to a routine chore such as washing your car and they would probably have a blast together. By the same token, fitting one of your son’s buddies into a family outing — an afternoon at an indoor pool, movie matinee or a walk through the woods — would serve this interest, too.

Since you mentioned his birth order, you probably are aware of how that can affect behavior. Among three children, the oldest has his or her status stamped as the first to achieve milestones such as walking, starting school, etc. He or she is more capable than the others for most tasks up until adulthood, but even then, may continue as a trail-blazer and achiever. The youngest child comes in as a baby and may maintain aspects of this role throughout childhood and beyond. Parents tend to be more relaxed — and less excited — about achievements and more invested in keeping their youngest as the one who delights them with cuteness. He or she may continue through life as one who easily accepts the limelight as well as help from others. Your middle child may have trouble knowing just how to get your attention; he is neither the one who gives you the greatest pride nor the one who makes you feel irreplaceably needed.

Which brings us to the relationship between you. Parenting is often called the most challenging but the most rewarding job. When you parent more than one child, you are performing multiple jobs at the same time. Each child requires individualized parenting, necessitating specific behaviors from you. You might need to suppress your “go-get-’em” attitude towards life around a child who is more of a shy and retiring type. A softer approach would reduce your frustration with him. You should have casual conversations with your son about what’s coming up, being sure to mention some of the things he’s likely to be familiar with and or enjoy. By the same token – that of making sure he knows that you know who he is – take time to reflect with him after an activity. Help him express his individuality to you. This will help you in planning things more likely to get him out of the mud in which he is customarily stuck.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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