More thoughts on digging deep - FamilyEducation

More thoughts on digging deep

December 07,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

When I posted yesterday's column to my Facebook page I was happy to get quite a bit of feedback/commiseration/perspective back (thank you everyone who posted there, and here, too!). Many parents are struggling with the same issues: trying hard to teach self-motivation to their growing children, making numerous trips up and down stairs to rouse slumbering middle schoolers; cajoling and threatening (and bribing) their kids to get ready on time. I think I was reassured that, for the most part, the type of morning we face with L. seems fairly normal. It also seems that a large part of the self-motivation piece comes from personality. Some kids are inherently self-starters, others need more encouragement. I think it's probably safe to say that most kids L.'s age (and beyond--as I see in my college students) are motivated by the things they like to do, and not by the things they have to do.

Not surprising at all, considering we're dealing with ten- and eleven-year olds.

I think what is challenging for us is that there is virtually nothing that motivates L. enough to leave the house. Most children can project themselves several hours down the road and "into" a fun activity. They might think about a special treat they'll have after lunch, or an event they're going to in the evening, or their extracurricular activity later in the day. But L. is unable to do this. He is very in the moment, and because he's unable to visualize ahead, he is unable to use that as a motivator, the way other kids might. I think about myself even, as an example. What often gets me through a difficult day is thinking ahead to some simple but good moment at the end of it: dinner with my family, or watching a favorite television show with Scott. I can think back to my childhood and recall how I would often project myself into the future of my day/week/month as a way of getting through difficult times, or unpleasant tasks.

As we learned early on, L. struggles tremendously with his executive function skills. With some parental nudging, even small children begin to learn to use these skills early on in their social development. Children who struggle with executive function have tremendous difficult with daily tasks, and with homework. So while many of our interventions have helped L. (breaking down his homework into small steps, making "to-do" lists around the house, small-step reward charts, etc.) I think helping him has become more challenging as he's grown older, and these tricks and interventions have stopped working on an older child.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a parenting group talk and the speaker encouraged parents and caregivers of tweens to move away from relying too much on prompting their children, as she has seen many young tweens and teens--on the spectrum and off the spectrum--grow up into young adults who can't function well without constant prompting. I thought about this quite a bit after the talk. How might L. be different from other children his age? Perhaps he isn't so much at this point in his life, but I think the difference lies in the fact that while other kids are able to find motivation when it comes to activities they enjoy, L. is simply unable to move beyond the very immediacy of the moment into the next step, always a step fraught with uncertainty and anxiety--by virtue of it just being another step. When I think about this, I always think back to L.'s birth, and to the fact that he seemed so reluctant to be born (unlike his sister, who came 10 days early, and barreled out into the world in under two hours), despite the drugs the doctor gave me to induce his birth. I know I'm just fancying a connection, but when I write this and think about my L. I see him, curled up inside my womb, so reluctant to make that final, irrevocable leap into the unknown.