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How Do We Motivate Our Teenage Children?

It is crucial for us to learn how to motivate our children and students as they struggle through their teenage years. One of the big stories that has emerged out of the 2022 Winter Olympic games revolves around Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze who berated 15-year-old figure skater Kamila Valieva after a humiliating performance during her free skate competition when she fell twice. As Valieva left the rink in tears, her coach publicly berated her for the mistakes in a dressing down that was viewed on TV around the world as it unfolded: “Why did you let it go like that? Why did you let it go? Why did you stop fighting? Explain!” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said that he found Tutberidze’s behavior “disturbing,” although the Kremlin defended the coach’s behavior, asserting that “the harshness of a coach in high-level sport is key for their athletes to achieve victories.”

Although most parents are not training their teenagers for the Olympic games, this story highlights the tension of how we should motivate our teenage children. If we want our children to reach their potential, shouldn’t we demand excellence? On the other hand, if we want our children to have good self-esteem, shouldn’t we ease off on pressuring our children too much?

Parents have different parenting styles when dealing with teenagers. For some parents, it’s all about making sure that their children are constantly happy. They don’t want to see their children fail or suffer disappointment. In fact, it can be very painful for parents to watch their children struggle. Therefore, many parents will go out of their way and work hard to ensure that their children succeed. If a child cannot complete his or her homework and really is struggling, then these types of parents will see that their child tried and they will do the homework for the child. This is the “every child in a competition should receive a trophy” approach.

However, other parents don’t like this approach. When we simply complete the homework for our children, we are communicating that it is our job and not their job to make them happy. Furthermore, we communicate to our children that they are incompetent and are unable to do the work themselves. We are not teaching them how to be resilient or how to struggle and we do not prepare our children for life’s disappointments if we keep protecting them. These parents live by the following motto: Don’t work harder than your children in solving their problems. Children need to learn resilience and they need to learn how to fix their own mistakes.  According to this approach, our job as parents is to be a resource but not a savior.

If I had to choose between these two approaches, I would support this second approach. However, I find it very challenging in today’s world with its heavy focus on results. If we simply encourage our children to struggle and let them fix their own mistakes, they may not emerge from their struggle feeling good about themselves. They may consider themselves a failure because, ultimately, they didn’t achieve their desired results. In theory it’s easy to say to a child that only the effort and not the result matters, but in a society that is so result-oriented, it’s very hard for a child to feel good about himself or herself if he or she constantly is trying and not measuring up.

That’s why I think that parents, and teachers for that matter, should have two objectives when trying to balance the goal of ensuring that their children and/or students succeed and letting them struggle. First, it is the responsibility of both parents and teachers to ensure that their teenage children and/or students find success. When I was an assistant principal of a Yeshiva high school and I was charged with hiring teachers, I remember telling prospective teachers that the difference between a college professor and a high school teacher is that the job of a college professor is to transmit information to the student and the job of a high school teacher is to ensure that the student succeeds in understanding the material.

Both parents and high school teachers need to modify their expectations of their children and/or students in such a way that their children both struggle and experience success. How do they do that? They need to find their children’s strengths and build on those strengths. In his work, “Chovat Ha’Talmidim,” the Piaseczno Rebbe explained that the word for education, “chinuch,” does not mean to teach a skill; rather, it means to actualize the capabilities that our child already possesses through, in the case of a teacher, differentiated instruction and expectations. The responsibility of a parent or educator is to become aware of and nurture these qualities. Similarly, the Lubavitcher Rebbe once said that today’s children do not need to be overly criticized or lectured about their shortcomings. They are their own biggest critics. Instead, they need to hear more about their strengths and incredible potential. Find out what your child or student is good at, encourage him or her to struggle, and allow him or her to experience success at the level they are able to achieve.

Secondly, parents and teachers must communicate to their teenage children and/or students that they believe in them. Most studies indicate that the most critical factor in helping adolescents transcend adversity is one person – a parent, teacher or other adult – who believes in them. In Likutei Maharan (Torah #282), Rav Nachman of Breslov wrote that the way in which we look at others can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. A positive outlook on another can actually raise that individual’s level and empower him or her to be the good person we see in them.

I’ve seen students misbehave in class and I’ve seen teachers have different responses to the misbehavior. I’ve seen a teacher tell a student, “I know you can’t help yourself, so I won’t punish you, because I have mercy on you.” And I’ve seen another teacher tell a student, “You are going to have a consequence for your behavior, and I believe that your behavior is not reflective of who you are and I know that you can and will do better.” Now the student initially is happier with the first teacher because there is no consequence, but the response of the second teacher is far superior. The second response reflects the fact that the teacher believes in the student and creates an atmosphere where the student is motivated to live up to the teacher’s standards. Sometimes, the best kind of mussar to help someone improve is specifically when we don’t criticize, but when we say that we believe in him or her.

Every morning when we wake up, we recite “modeh ani.” The end of this short prayer seems a little strange. We say, “Rabbah emunatecha,” or “You have a lot of faith.” I would have thought that we would conclude this prayer with the words, “Rabbah emunati,” meaning that “my faith [in God] is a lot.” Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter once told me that his father explained this line to mean that we declare every morning that God’s faith in us is great. Even if we had a bad day yesterday, we wake up every morning recognizing that God has faith in us and therefore, we must live up to that faith. If God has faith in us, then shouldn’t we have faith in ourselves, and in others?

It is crucial for us to learn how to motivate our children and students as they struggle through their teenage years. Our tradition has taught us that the best way to do this is not through berating them for their failures, but through a two-step process instead. First, find their strengths and help them develop those strengths through struggle so that they may find success. Second, take a page out of God’s book and convey to your children and students one very simple message: I believe in you.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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