Imagine for a moment that one kid who all the adults feel is “a little unmotivated.”

Maybe this is the kid who “isn’t living up to her potential” and making grades that don’t reflect how smart she actually is. Or maybe it’s the recent graduate who still lives in his parent’s home, works a mediocre job and seems to be aimless.

Often the adults in this child’s life feel that if only this kid could be more motivated to try harder, she would do better. The parents might get a lot of advice, like, “if you always let her live in your home, she’ll never have the motivation to try harder.”

Or they might try things like, “take away her car and cellphone and friends until she shapes up.”

On the other hand, other parents will try promising bigger and better rewards, like buying her a car or paying for college tuition, if she will serve a religious mission, apply to college or get a job.

But let’s step back for a moment and take a closer look at “motivation” and the role it plays in success.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re back in middle school gym class and you’re up to bat. Imagine that you are just really bad at hitting the ball, and you know it, and your coach knows it.

“Come on!” she says. “Just hit this one ball and if you do, I’ll pass you on gym class. If you can’t hit it, I will have to fail you.”

You are really motivated right now, because you do not want to re-take gym class. So you step up to the plate, take a swing — and miss.

Your coach is disappointed, but you still have two more swings. All your friends are watching, and as you step up the second time, they start cheering: “You can do it! You can do it!” You really don’t want to let them down. In fact, you can’t imagine anything worse, and you feel very motivated to be the hero of the day. So you step up to the plate — swing — and miss.

But your head is still in the game, so you step up one last time. And now your dad is there, and he’s waving a $50 bill in your face. “Come on!” he says. “If you can hit this ball, I will give you this $50 bill! If you can’t hit it, I will ground you for a week.”

Now imagine how you’re feeling. Your grade is on the line. Your friends’ respect and admiration is on the line. You’ve got the chance to make $50 and avoid being grounded. You are motivated as anything; in fact, you’ve never been more motivated in your entire life.

So you step up to bat. You take a swing. And you miss.

So here’s the question that our parable leads us to ask: When is simple motivation not enough? Are there times when simply being motivated to succeed is insufficient?

Clearly, the answer is yes, and it’s in those moments when what’s being asked of us is beyond what we are actually able to do.

And imagine how much worse it will feel if all the adults, in addition to being disappointed that you didn’t hit the ball, now ask you, “were you even trying? Did you even care? You didn’t hit the ball, so clearly this doesn’t matter to you.”

Most of us care much, much more than we ever let on. We don’t want to look dumb; we don’t want to feel vulnerable by showing how deep our emotions run. And this is no less true for our children, teenagers and young adults.

If this story resonates with you and you’re stuck in a rut with your child where he “performs below their potential” and, even worse, he won’t open up to you about the things he really wants out of life, you didn’t end up in that rut in just one day. And it will take more than one day to get out of it.

One place to start, however, is by doubling down on “emotional safety.” You can start by trusting that there is almost always something more beneath the surface than “a lack of motivation.” You can’t know exactly what that is, which is why you need to establish a relationship of trust.

Work on making it safe for your child to talk by listening more than you speak. Make it safe to feel by validating negative (and sometimes very big!) emotions. You can also help children feel safe to fail by sharing times when you tried hard at something and didn’t succeed — you don’t need to emphasize a happy ending. Your goal is just to show that you understand what it feels like and to show that failing doesn’t mean everything is over.

With a little time and patience, you may find that your whole perspective on your child is changed, and your relationship too. Your child’s future may not look like what you always wanted it to be, but your relationship with your child can improve. When your relationship is better, your child has another ally in their corner and a greater chance of succeeding.

United Way is on a mission to help every child in our community feel safe, connected, and confident. Twice a month in this space, we’ll be sharing ideas from local professionals, parents, and friends about how you can do that for the kids in your life. In the meantime, find us at, or on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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