Exploring Motivation, Control & Decision Making with the Kids

We are always trying to encourage our kids on this wonderful homeschool journey, right?!Motivation and Control - Thinking about your future

This semester we started off with a family discussion… a discussion that I hope will get to the heart of the kids’ own motivation, self-determination and the path they’ll/we’ll be creating for this semester.

You guys know it, I am a planner. I am a curriculum creator… but when it comes to the day-to-day I am not the “BIG BOSS” … I am more of a coach, facilitator, mentor, resource, guide in THEIR educational journey!!

I wanted to start off the semester with a series of discussions that would help them see how much control they have over their lives… We talked about how they are beginning to run their lives. They have control over things that are molding their own futures.

Looking ahead... can give you motivationLet me tell you about what we talked about… and maybe you can take this (you can print this out here) and tweak it to have some deep, meaningful conversations with your own kids. 🙂

Why, Why, Why?

On the first day back this semester, the kids filled out a questionnaire answering all kinds of “Why” questions.  I didn’t tell them any of the stuff above about motivation or internal drive or anything. I just handed them the sheet and asked the to fill it out.  I asked them to really look for the reasons they do things… not just “because Mom says so.”  In fact, I pointed out, because you are older now there are a lot of things that you could choose not to do on this list, even if I asked you.

Why Questions - Discussion about MotivationI think I gave them about 15 minutes to fill in that first sheet. Here is the list of questions I had for them: (You can click here for the free pdf printable.)

  • Write down something you really don’t want to do. Is it important? What if you just don’t do it?
  • Why brush your teeth twice a day?
  • Why are you homeschooling?
  • Why aren’t you in public school?
  • Why do you do math?
  • Is history important to learn? Why or why not?
  • Why are you saving money… or are you?
  • Why keep your room clean? (seriously… is it important to you? Why or why not?)
  • Why go to college? Why join the military?
  • Why help others? Why volunteer?
  • Why learn a language?
  • Why do you watch TV shows/YouTube/videos etc.?
  • Why play games?
  • Why work hard?

Then I asked the kids… Is it useful to ask all these why questions?  That didn’t get the conversation rolling very quickly, but I wanted them to know that conversation was about more than just the questions themselves. When there was that deadly silence… I continued… So why do you brush your teeth?  They gave me the normal answers… and I pointed out that at this point brushing your teeth is more than just “because Mom or Dad says so, right?”  You want or want to make sure you don’t have cavities and want to avoid painful dental procedures, right?  It’s not just about following your parents anymore, it’s about taking responsibility for your future.

We let the conversation wander over some of the other questions (and actually, the more the kids talked the more animated the discussion became).  … Eventually I pulled it back to my theme… so what do these WHY questions show us?  The kids were able to get very close to the answer I was looking for… that these kinds of questions give us insight into why we do the things we do.  These reasons can give us motivation to continue with repetitive or boring tasks or things we’re not sure we want to do.

Thinking about what we are doing gives us a reason for completing tasks… (our conversation moved to chores around the house and why these things need to get done…).

I again pointed out that now that they are preteens and teens, they have control over what they do.  They are making the decision to complete tasks, work on projects and do schoolwork… or not! And, in fact, all of this gives us MOTIVATION for getting things done.

Did you know there’s an actual place in your brain that regulates motivation and self-drive?

I went on to tell them about a businessman who once went on a trip to South America.  He hadn’t taken a vacation in years and years. He was in charge of many people, worked long hours, and built a multi-million dollar empire.  But something happened on this trip.  At one point he said he didn’t feel well, started acting strangely and saying strange things and spent a night vomiting.  They thought it might have been something to do with the altitude and cut their trip short.   His personality changed, though.  Once he was home, he didn’t go back to work, didn’t check in with his business partners. He would sit for hours idly in front of the TV.  Eventually, after a lot of testing, they found that there was a very small pin-prick rupture in the middle of his brain.  This particular area of the brain seems to be important for motivation. When that blood-vessel burst, this man had lost his drive.

This story has a good ending, though. Over a period of months and years, his wife was able to ask him questions and get him talking… and eventually the man was able to regain and build up reasons for doing things again.

When you ask yourself why you are forcing yourself to do something you realize you have a choice in the matter… you realize you are in control of your own destiny. You realize you are making your own life much better and more productive.


Our Routine: Control and Decision-Making

On the second day, I asked them  “Why ask Why?”  Of course DD said, “Why not?”  After a chuckle, I brought it back around, “Seriously guys, why bother to ask ourselves why we do things?” They were pretty easily able to highlight the fact that thinking a little more deeply about what we are doing helps us see why things are important and can even motivate us to get things done.

We talked about taking out the compost (a task that my kids really dislike).  I told them that the reason why I like doing it is a) because the plant matter doesn’t go to the landfill and b) because eventually I get to see the nutrient-rich soil that I add to our vegetable garden.  I really like the feeling that I am helping the soil. I feel a sense of reward seeing that cycle happen and it truly makes me happy. The kids raised their eyebrows… I told them maybe they don’t have that Earth-hugging warm fuzzy feeling right now, but at the very least they’ve helped their Mom out, right?  And that makes me really grateful for a family like ours.

Before we start on the other side (of the Why, Why, Why sheet), I want to talk a little bit about control.  When people believe that they are in control, they are much more likely to work hard and push themselves.  I mentioned the study of kids who were given some puzzles and challenges.  After thirty minutes or so, the kids were then either told that they were really smart to have done so well at the puzzle challenges or were told that they worked hard. The next time the kids were given similar, but harder challenges the students that had been told that they were hard workers worked at the puzzles longer and showed more perseverance than those that had been told they were smart.

When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder.  The kids that had been told they were hard-workers had control. They were more confident and challenged themselves more.

“Today,” I told the kids, “we’re going to talk a little more practically about what we’re doing – not just why we’re doing things.  You’re also going to help me out by giving me some suggestions for lunch and dinner. 🙂   This is your education and I want to know what your priorities are and what things we should change up.”

I gave them about 10 minutes to jot down their answers…

Why - Motivation, Homeschool Routine, Control and Decision MakingAs you can imagine, our conversation meandered from our favorite meals (I scribbled madly and came up with a long list of things to make!)

Dinner MealsWe had some really good discussions about what we’ve been learning and I was able to really touch bases with the kids about the subjects/topics we’re doing.  For example, my son says he really wants to spend more time working on computer science and said he wants to spend at least an hour or two a day on that.  (This is subject that I am not teaching. My Hubby is teaching/overseeing that… so the kids work on assignments Hubby has given them. Also, LD and DD (my older two) have a computer class once a week.).

My youngest, ED, said she really wants to dive into a unit on fossils and paleontology again.  So, we spent time earlier this week mapping out what she would do.  She wants to create a power-point presentation and a giant poster on what she learns. She is SO, SO excited about her project!

Fossil Project

One last thing to remember, people are more motivated to complete different chores and tasks when they are presented as decisions rather than commands.

Mental Models

On the last day (of this discussion) we talked about mental models.  What does this mean?

We all develop stories about what is going on around us. We create mental models of what we expect to see. We tell ourselves stories about what’s going on as it occurs. We daydream about our future. We think about the things we expect to happen. In other words, we create mental models of what we expect to happen.

People such as pro-athletes or engineers harness this ability to shape their actions and develop their skills. They will take a few moments to visualize what they are about to do… to sink a basket, hit a home run, run a race and sprint at the end.

These mental models can also help us to deal with the unexpected.

Writing Exercise:

We spent a few minutes writing down how we expect a normal average morning to unfold. What do you expect to happen when you get up each morning?

I set the timer for 4 minutes and had the kids write down what they do each morning (on a “normal” school day, not on the weekend.)

When the timer went off, I read them the story of a NICU nurse who walked by an infant being attended by another nurse.  As she glanced at the baby, she became became concerned.  She noticed the baby’s skin tone was mottled, the baby’s tummy was slightly distended and the place where a pin-prick test had been done on the heal had a bit more blood than is normal. The other nurse was observing the baby’s normal breathing, pulse rate, etc. wasn’t concerned. The other nurse, though, quickly contacted a doctor and had the doctor prescribe antibiotics.  The doctor ordered some labs to be done and it turns out that the baby was in the early stages of sepsis. If the nurse hadn’t acted right away, likely the baby would have died.

What made the one nurse take in the breathing and pulse-rate and feel that things were normal and the other nurse to feel that something was wrong?  She said she had a mental image of what she expected a normal infant to look like and something was just “off” with this baby.

We often create mental models of what we expect… and even what we hope to see. For the nurse, when this baby didn’t fit her mental model she acted… and saved the baby’s life!

We went to talk about how athletes will often “see” themselves making a goal, running a race faster than ever or sinking a shot in basketball.  This technique

Writing Exercise:  I had the kids look at their writing… was it positive? Negative? Neutral? (write that on the line). I said, chances are your writing was positive or neutral, right?  We don’t normally envision a morning where we wake up grouchy or scream at our sibling in frustration, right? We often make mental models that create a positive future for ourselves). On the next line add in 2 or 3 positive things you’d like to add into your morning

After they spent a minute writing their positive additions… I said… this is your secret weapon… a weapon that a lot of people don’t realize they have. You can take something neutral like brushing your teeth and instead use that moment to envision yourself at the age of 99 with gleaming, pearly whites! Looking ahead and visualizing a better future can give you inspiration and motivation to do mundane things.

What we got out of these exercises…

  1. ED is super excited to dive into her own science unit on fossils & paleontology. She woke up early the past couple of mornings because she was so excited to work on her project!
  2. We had some really good conversations about what we’re covering… and how the kids feel about each subject.
  3. I got a really great list of meal ideas… It’s always such a struggle to keep the family fed (talk about needing some inspiration!)!!
  4. We talked about motivation and taking responsibility… the challenges of keeping motivated to do mundane things… and all that…  just another conversation as they move towards the (end goal) of becoming independent learners. 🙂
  5. I think we all felt like a team and it started us out on the right foot this new semester.

Our choices are meaningful!

You can control your destiny with the choices you make. … a good grade is due to hard work… the ability to play an instrument is due to the rehearsals you do, the lessons you take, the time you put into practicing.

When we feel a sense of control, we are much more willing to play along. When you start asking yourself why… those small tasks become a part of a larger constellation of meaningful projects, goals and values. They prove that we are making meaningful choices.

When you ask yourself why you doing something you realize you have a choice in the matter… you realize you are in control of your own destiny. You realize you are making your own life much better and more productive.

If you are interested in downloading the sheets I made for the kids you can click here: Free Printable – Exploring Motivation, Control, Decision Making pdf

After I got done writing all of this… I kind of wondered if it would resonate with you all… but I’m just going to hit click and publish anyway. 🙂  It’s kind of hard to explain why a discuss works well because you can’t really capture the essence & the back-and-forth of a really powerful conversation.

Hope your homeschooling is going well!


Here are some other posts that are about encouraging our kids… and encouraging YOU as a busy, wonderful, amazing homeschool parent!!

Homeschool Encouragement Posts

Homeschool Encouragment

Homeschool Motivation-10 Ways To Keep Going


Ultimate Hands-On Homeschooling Guide

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