The Psychology of Motivation: Understand and Inspire Your Son

Author; Founder, CEO, The Learning Consultants

Daryl Capuano, founder and CEO of educational advising firm The Learning Consultants and author of Motivate Your Son: Inspire your boy to be engaged in school, excited for college, and energized for success shares his tips for uncovering your son’s psychological blueprint—and how doing so can help you motivate him to succeed.

Parents often ask me, “How can I motivate my child?” They seem to expect a one-size-fits-all response. Instead, I ask more questions. Transformational motivation emanates from specific tailoring to the individual, discovering his or her psychology “type.”

Sure, some general principles are usually effective. Behaviorism works to a degree. The old carrot-and-stick approach has a long history of success. Vision creation does as well. Connecting the present drudgery of homework to a compelling future will help get your child through those many nights when Facebook or video games are calling.

But, for real help, the individual details matter. I need to know more about the child’s peer group, age, gender, and birth order, to name a few, in order to customize my advice. However, nothing matters anywhere nearly as much as the child’s psychological blueprint. Unfortunately, this notion meets with some resistance.

That we have different personalities and make general categorizations about personality traits —as opposed to psychological traits—meets with near universal agreement. We concur that some people are extroverted and others introverted, and so forth. Generally, most people are comfortable describing surface personality characteristics.

Not so much with psychological theory. Talking about the psychological needs of others will not go over well at most barbeques. To some, it will seem invasive. To others, such talk strikes of psychological mumbo-jumbo. And, regardless, skeptics will ask, perhaps rightly so, “How do you know?”

But, we are talking about your children. Your ability to accurately uncover these motivational triggers might end up being your most important skill as a parent trying to motivate your child. In short, you need to be an amateur psychologist. All great coaches, leaders, and educators practice psychology, regardless of whether they ever took Psych 101. Even the most hardened military leaders, while likely not referencing the abstract world of the subconscious, are engaged in the practice of psychology when transforming an unruly 18-year-old into an obedient soldier.

Knowing that your child is extroverted will partially explain teacher comments about his talking too much in class. But, such knowledge is not as important as understanding that he feels trapped whenever he is in a structured situation and this feeling of being trapped compels him to continually talk to his buddies. In my book, Motivate Your Son, I describe this type as an “Adventure Boy.” Freedom and fun are the psychological drivers. Getting in some trouble is worth the price of escaping tedium.

In relation to motivation, understanding why someone acts (the psychological cause) is far more revealing than how someone acts (the manifestation in personality). For example, you might say, “My son only cares about excelling in sports and his social life. He doesn’t care about school at all.” Certainly, playing sports and hanging out with friends are more enjoyable than school, but what makes him so motivated to pursue these areas?

Is he a “Star Boy”? I use this term for those whose most significant attraction is public approval. As a preteen or teen boy, being a top athlete and socially popular are seemingly the only areas that win public peer approval. Doing well in school might even cost him points among the “cool” crowd.

As a parent, you have to think about what words you will use when trying to shift your son’s motivation. Telling him to try to do well school because “he should” or “it’s the right thing to do” will not affect his psychological triggers. Telling him to try to do well school so he can “get into college” will be better only if you have translated “getting into college” to “success.” Explaining that doing well in school will soon become the dominant way that success is perceived will have a better chance of affecting him.

Communication strategies should be different based on varying psychological types. For example, I hear from many parents about their sons who seem unmotivated across the board. They just hang out, play video games, and loosely engage in social media. This description fits what I label “Go With The Flow Boys.” Their main psychological driver is stress avoidance. Doing anything that causes internal conflict or stress creates discomfort. Such types usually do not cause much trouble. But they also have minimal motivation. They are not driven by a need to stand out, as are Star Boys. Telling them that doing well will lead to public approval will not shift them as dramatically as explaining how doing well will lead to an easier way of life later. For Go With The Flow Boys, explaining how working now will ultimately lead to less stress can be very effective. “If you do well now, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy your life” will have a deeper impact than selling the ability to be a star. Similarly, “if you get this done now, you won’t have to do it Sunday night when you want to watch football” will be more persuasive.

So, what should you do? Dedicate yourself to figuring out your child’s individual psychological blueprint. This is difficult and often surprisingly challenging for parents because they understand their child only in the context of their parent-child relationship.

Think more broadly. How does your child act with others? What really motivates him in all areas of life? If you figure that out, you’ll be well positioned to change his life.

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