Motivation for Learning: Parents Can Help

As parents, we want our children to learn. We know the benefits of being able to read well, to write clearly, to solve problems and to communicate effectively.

Not only do these abilities allow us to earn a decent living, but they also help us to enjoy life and to appreciate its wonders and beauty.

So, as many generations before us, we preach the benefits of a good education and try with a deliberate effort to uphold, at least verbally, the values of studying, of "hitting the books and burning the midnight oil."

But with our sermonettes, cajoling, and in some instances, begging and threatening our children to study and learn, many of them seem to turn away and perceive us simply as nagging parents with little impact on their daily learning.

We, in turn, often feel guilty and fatigued by these constant battles for our children's benefit, and resent our roles as minister- wardens in the service of modern education.

What Can Parents Do?

There is much that we can do. What follows is a checklist of parental behaviors that can facilitate the motivation of our children to learn. None of these suggestions in and of itself is enough to spell the difference between a child who studies and one who does not. Rather, it is their combination and employment as a totality that can realistically help our sons and daughters to consistently involve themselves in the pursuit of learning at school as well as at home. 

Actively demonstrate your value for learning. The basic question here is "Can your children see that you are still a learner?" Do you read books, go to the library, watch educational TV programs, write letters, or attend local school functions? Do you discuss ideas at home, share opinions on social and political change, or wonder out loud about new scientific and aesthetic discoveries? Do you read to your children, play educational games like Monopoly and chess with them, or facilitate their involvement in creative projects?

Our modeling is a powerful incentive for our children's learning. If they see us doing it, then they know it's worthwhile and can identify with us. If they don't see us enjoying learning, they can dismiss our support for learning as another example of "not practicing what we preach."

Show a non-threatening interest in your child's learning. This means that you care and want to know what your child is learning, but not for purposes of criticism or surveillance. In this manner, you might ask about what s/he is learning in school or indicate your desire to see papers and projects s/he is creating.

The dinner table is an excellent setting for exploration of new things your child has learned at school. On these occasions, your disposition should be to understand and share in the enjoyment of your child's learning. They are not situations in which to criticize or be demanding of the child to improve or to show superior work. Such reactions will usually cause the young person to avoid discussions of this nature, or worse, to resent schoolwork for the oppression it brings to home life.

Consistently offer your child a sincere expectancy that s/he can learn effectively. In order to learn, children must believe that they can learn. Much of this attitude is influenced by the work they do in school and the expectations and feedback they receive from teachers and other students. You as a parent, however, are the most important adult in your child's life. Whatever you say or do regarding his or her ability to learn will have a major impact on the child's self-concept as an effective learner.

By acknowledging effort as well as success, you tell the child that the intrinsic act of learning is valued. This approach builds an appreciation of learning for the sake of learning.

Get involved in your child's school. At one time it was believed that students did not learn because they were lazy or stupid. We now know that this is a misleading and injurious fallacy. At least two other erroneous beliefs continue to misguide us, however - one, that students don't learn because their teachers are not effective; the other, that students will not learn because their parents don't care and therefore don't prepare them to learn. Both may have some partial truth, but both are far too simplistic to explain the causes behind poor student motivation.

It is far more likely that the student, the teacher, and the parent all play significant roles in determining how motivated the student is to learn. As parents, we can do our part by being involved in the life of those schools that educate our children. By knowing the teachers, by being aware of the curriculum, and by supporting the school itself, we ourselves can be more knowledgeable and, indeed, motivated to facilitate the motivation of our children to learn.

Reprinted with permission.  Copyright © 1987 National Education Association of the United States, Stock No. 0760-3, "Motivation for Learning: Parents Can Help" by Raymond J. Wlodkowski, Washington, D. C. 20036-3290