Lacking Motivation

unmotivated girl - kids lacking motivation?

Do your kids seem to be lacking motivation?

Does it make you worry if unschooling can really work in your family?

Let's talk about!

Podcast Transcript:

Lots of parents say this - maybe you can relate:

“My kid is so unmotivated!”



“I’d love to ‘trust the process’ and unschool, but if I did, all they’d ever do is <fill-in-the-blank>."


And, usually, the complaint is that those things they’d always do “if left to their own devices,” is stay on their DEVICES! 😉

But I’ll talk another time (or two or three more times!) about unschooling and technology.
This time, though, I really want us to focus on that recurring theme of kids lacking motivation.

The first thing to think about is what YOU are bringing to the situation.

What are you wanting them to be motivated to do?

Play in ways they used to, when they were younger?

Pick up a textbook?

Do something that has a slight tint of academics?

Recognizing Your Agenda

Sometimes the problem is with our agenda.

Think about the story in your head - what are you wishing would happen?

And, does your story... need a little deschooling?

When we have an idea of what we think SHOULD be happening, it crowds out the good that is actually occurring. It’s a dismissive “Yeah, but…”

“Yeah, that part is good, but this part isn’t. So I want to keep the focus on the thing I’m not satisfied with.”

And, maybe that needs a little reframing, right?

It might be better to say,

“Ok, this isn’t quite what I wanted, but these other things ARE happening - and they are good.”

This loosens the grip your Fear has on you. It nudges you away from all-or-nothing thinking or the disaster mindset we seem to move toward so frequently. It’s always good to shine some light on the problem and see what ALL is going on. That’s the “witnessing” part that you sometimes hear people talk about. It’s about asking yourself if your assessment of the situation is true or accurate, instead of getting defensive about what you want. Witnessing is when you can zoom out a little and see what’s happening in the interactions between you and your kids (or even anyone else).

The next part to explore is what we mean when we say,

“How can I motivate him?”

  • Why would we think they need that?
  • Because we don’t like their choices?
  • They aren’t doing what we think they should do?
  • They’re not following the familiar script we’ve created in our heads?

So that takes us back to OUR agenda and ideas about what WE think is supposed to happen.


  • Where did the unschooling idea about all learners being hardwired to learn go?
  • Or about humans being naturally curious?
  • Do we think our child is the exception to this?

We’ve read research that supports these ideas. But because the school approach dismisses them (because implementing all that personal choice in a school setting would be really hard), we also dismiss them and revert back to the familiar approaches.

Our initial desire for a truly individualized creative approach is laced with one-size-fits-all ideas.

It’s ok. It’s a process. And the point is to keep unpacking the thoughts that are getting in the way.

Need help with Deschooling?

Most of us spent a lot of years in school. This conditioned us to believe that learning is supposed to look a certain way - and only one way - the Schoolish Way.

But that's not how life really works. There are so many ways to learn!

The Unschooling Guide about Deschooling, a beautiful 20-page mini-magazine, will help you undo some of these ideas that aren't even true outside of a school setting. Like...

  • Practical solutions for issues that arise in your home during this phase.
  • How to cope with criticism from your community, friends, family.
  • Looking back on your own school experiences and how they affect you today.
  • Deschooling tips about learning, parenting, and the kids.
  • Strategies for connecting more with the children as they deschool.
  • Journaling prompts to dive deeper.
  • Even an "Unschooling Curriculum!" 😁
Unschooling Guide - Deschooling

So let’s think about it.

We HAVE noticed that they are capable of focusing for a long time on things THEY want to do. They show us grit, where they stick with things that are hard because they want the end result. (video games, lego, playing pretend - all pop to mind here.) So it’s not that they can’t focus or they're really lacking motivation. They can do it if they want to. They have plenty of internal motivation for things they care about.

We’re just not caring about the same things.

We’re not trusting the process or seeing the learning and value in the choices they’re making. We get panicky as time clicks on and we think,

“But they don’t know their times tables, or they’re not reading fluently.”   Or some other academic pursuit we see as more valuable.

Most of this boils down to the fact that they don’t share our choices of what they should be doing. They prefer something else.
But we’ve read and agreed with the concepts that motivation is something that really comes from within.

So we KNOW that… theoretically. And maybe even from our own life experience.

But why can’t we hold onto that when it comes to our kids and their own motivations?

Why do we second-guess it all?

Well, it’s the usual culprit: Fear.

And we can have all kinds of things to fear and reasons those ideas pop into our heads.
That’s the hard work of unschooling. We have to look at our own agendas… our own motivations.

Maybe our fear is lurking around the idea that we’re not inspiring enough. If you’re walking away from your child and not engaging with them, that’s a possibility.

But it’s more likely that we’re holding on to old ideas, stuck with that familiar past and expectations or worried about a future we have NO idea of what it will hold.

Alfie Kohn, the educational researcher and author of the fabulous book, Punished By Rewards, writes about internal and external motivation. He says:

Only extrinsic motivation can be increased from the outside, so that’s what schools focus on (with grades, points, awards, praise, and the like) — often at the expense of children’s interest in learning.

As unschoolers we’ve bypassed the grades and points - but we still may have praise and rewards built into our parenting. And that’s probably getting in their way as they develop their own intrinsic motivation. The simple fact is that humans learn because they want to know something. It’s relevant to their activities in their own life. It’s how we’ve managed to stay alive and evolve. It’s not because someone outside us said,

“Time to learn...something.”

That’s the artificial construct of school - and it does it’s best to squash that intrinsic motivation. Little kids learned so many things without a lesson plan - because it was a natural thing to do. They wanted to speak to us and convey their needs - so they learned to talk. They wanted to move across the room to get something, so they learned to walk. Those toddlers are so full of intrinsic motivation!

Then came school, a place full of demands, expectations, requirements, coercion, comparisons and competition. It was where the information lacked relevance in the learner's world, so they implemented all these extrinsic ways to motivate.

And what happened was, they overpowered the natural motivations we all had to learn.

And then, we become the parents, and carry with us the belief that the fault was ours for why we didn’t remember the arbitrary facts or excel the way everyone thought we should. And the fault was never ours. The “fault” was with the school approach of trying to focus on prioritizing the system moving smoothly over the needs and inclinations of the learners.

How many times did we hear them say,

“You’ll need this someday.”   Did we though?

So we carry this process into our parenting, thinking they need to make the choices WE were told would be necessary. And then we look over, and they’re not that motivated to do those things. So we consider the kids “unmotivated.” But really they’re just unmotivated to do the arbitrary things we’re expecting to see.

They ARE motivated to play.

They ARE motivated to pursue their own interests.

And that’s where the learning is REALLY happening.
That’s where it’s relevant and is motivating them to move toward something more challenging or achieving some goal they’ve set - even if it doesn’t look like our past learning experiences.

With all the external motivations and coercion that happened in our childhoods, why would our unschooled kids have something that looks like that? And isn’t that the point, to create something different that actually works better for the learner on so many levels?


Play really is how kids learn. It’s how they explore the world and find what they need.

The concept of "motivating" kids is really about coercing them to our way of thinking. Coercion doesn’t work, even when it’s sugar-coated and disguised with kind wording.

What DOES work though, is connecting more with the kids on the things they enjoy. That enables you to see what they’re enjoying and how they’re learning and breaking free of the idea that it has be all the familiar things you were forced to learn or you think would be “good for them.”

There’s no rush.
They have plenty of time to learn whatever they need. And when we wait until they DO actually need it, everything falls into place.

​So hopefully this helps you rethink that idea of motivation, or at least starts to break the grip of a negative spiral you might be on. Think about diving into more deschooling resources and try to see the learning that IS happening all around you.

Need to Talk Privately?

Sometimes we have questions swirling around in our heads and we need to talk to a real live person who has done this - and come out on the other side!

That's what I offer parents who want to talk one-to-one.

You can schedule a call on my calendar
and we can dive into all of your questions!

Or you can choose to set up an ongoing coaching relationship - kind of like an Unschooling Personal Trainer! Some people set this up for monthly calls, others are more spontaneous, hopping onto the calendar when they have accumulated a few more questions.
The coaching package offers a discount on the 1:1 call.

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2 thoughts on “Lacking Motivation

  1. Kira says:

    Thank you for this short little chat about motivation! When our daughters were in school, this is what the school kept saying about one of our daughter “we just have to find something that motivates her.” And as parents we followed trying everything! I mean everything! Then 4 years ago we started to homeschool. 3.5 years ago I found unschooling and I could immediately see what her motivation was when we removed our agenda. this winter SHE finally saw what her motivation is, I think because she finally has some other outside people recognizing her motivation. She was applying for a scholarship and needed letters of recommendation. Her ski coach, aerial instructor,soccer coach and friend/professional videographer all wrote inspiring letters about her. Not a single thing about being unmotivated. The exact opposite actually! Everything that she ever got from a school setting says she is unmotivated. Everything that she has gotten from her interests is inspiring and motivating. My husband is still caught up in the things to be improved, I am working on improving me and my actions/thoughts and words as a parent.I am so thankful for unschooling to be able to see the good in our children and support it in their lives. The hardest part is the cultural pressures of school. Staying positive and supporting the good that is seen. Being aware of it. Thank you for your work!

    • Sue Patterson says:

      Kira! I’m so happy to hear she’s doing well and you’re seeing that “motivation” was never the issue! Yay for the unschooling approach!
      Thank you so much for sharing!

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