Handsome doesn’t talk with me about his work very often, but lately he sure has. You see, he’s a therapist who works with lots of young people, and usually his job is full of variety – this 5-year-old is going through her parents’ divorce, this 9-year-old is getting bullied, this 12-year-old is acting depressed while no one knows why, and this 16-year-old has been sneaking out at night and smoking cigarettes with the wrong friends.
But not now. Today nearly every youth Handsome sees has the same issue: Motivation.
Now sure, that’s nothing new. Kids get bored, and teens get boreder. Always have. But – and you know very well what I’m getting to here – this Coronavirus year isn’t like anything that’s happened before. Children who have the same instincts as puppies – to get out and play and tumble and grab and hug and punch and kiss and pull hair – are stuck alone inside, with just some electronic screens to entertain them. And teens who, just as instinctually, crave to be out laughing and flirting and showing off in the best ways, are trapped, being told to just do the rest of their overlong homework.
And both, instead of spending their school hours trying and competing for grades, or passing notes to their classmates with silly drawings of the teacher, are (if they’re lucky enough to be able to afford it) sitting in front of a boring computer, where their teacher is trying as hard as they can to keep their students awake and focused on some subject that… well… if they found it all that interesting, they’d have been learning about it on their own, right?!
NO one is enjoying this, NO one wants it to continue, but NO one has a solution just yet. So EVERYone is annoyed, frustrated, bored, and ANYthing but motivated!
And how does that show up? Kids sending in blank homework assignments, good students falling behind because they can’t focus, or top-level students just turning their screens off and saying “This is a waste of my time and theirs. I’m learning nothing. I quit.”
What’s anyone to do?! Is there a solution?
Well sure. A cure, a vaccine, a treatment good enough for everyone to dare getting into groups again – that’ll fix this beautifully. But for now, what can students do? Or teachers? Or parents?
Now… you know what I’m going to say, don’t you. There is an answer: Stop asking machines or humans, and study us dogs instead!
In most ways, our brains are just simpler versions of people’s. Yeah, we have better smelling, and more squirrel-focus, but our relationship to motivation is just like yours. So what do we do when we’re stuck inside an apartment or a yard all day, or even a cage? Or when we’ve had our joy beaten out of us by abuse or neglect? Or when we’re just plain old lonely? How do we get motivated? And how can that apply to you?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Bribery Works! No pooch was ever born wanting to sit or stay or heel on command. And trainers have found that punishment isn’t half as effective a teaching method as reward. Fill your pockets with good-smelling treats, and your pup will be happy to train for as long as you wish, constantly doing their best to please you. So why not do the same with students? A full school day earns a chocolate cupcake. A good grade on a test earns a trip to the ice cream shop, and a great report card brings in that video game they’ve wanted for months. Yes, over time you want them to feel motivation in themselves, but THIS ISN’T THE TIME FOR THAT! (And for those of you too old to be bribed – nothing wrong with bribing yourself. “Finish this paper, and I get to watch the big game with a beer!”)
- Get Outdoors! There’s a reason we pups go crazy when we see you pull out a leash – our instincts are dying to get us out away from our homes, exploring, sniffing, experiencing, and especially MOVING. Don’t forget – until very recently, humans spent most of their time outdoors too. We species share a deep connection to nature that replenishes and invigorates us all. So get out there – take a walk, work in your garden, or just roll around in a park. And please don’t tell me “But I’ll get dirty!” That’s not dirt – that’s nature, that’s God, that’s history and beauty and meaning out there. What you’re wearing is chemicals and dyes and plastics and stuff. Roll in something way better!
- Try to Get Curious. Stick a dog in a yard for eight hours while our family is away, and what do we do? Do we stare at the wall, complaining we’re bored? Nope, we sniff. There’s nothing interesting to us yet, but we look around for it. Our ears twist around like sails, we check out every corner, we find what different places feel like to lie down. And almost every time, we find something interesting. A lizard ran by here. A bird is singing in a tree over there. Someone spilled something really delicious all over this place. And how does that apply to school? Well, let’s say you’re studying history, and that’s never been your thing. A bunch of kings and national boundaries. Borrrring. But what if you think of it like a gang war, with every leader trying to hold on to their turf while someone else on their side plots to take their place. Or an intergalactic battle for planets that will be won by the side with the greatest new weaponry. Or a group of sly crafty mean girls each plotting how to become the alpha of the group. Suddenly this is interesting to you? Then you’ve already succeeded.
- Socialize! Yeah I know what we’re after here is motivation to study harder and do more work. But wasn’t that easier when everyone hung out together, even in classes and in between them? Now, everyone’s feeling this gigantic hunger for community and contact, so bad it hurts in the heart! And of course that’s getting in the way of your motivation. So reach out – call a friend you haven’t spoken to in months (or years), set up a way to meet either virtually or safely in person, and tell dumb jokes, reminisce about good times, talk about crushes, ANYTHING. And you’ll find it helps the rest of your life too.
- Look Forward! We dogs don’t have nearly the sense of time you humans do. We live in the moment mostly. But your sense of motivation has a lot to do with what’s coming up. “I gotta study my French tonight because there’s a test tomorrow.” “I need to get better at kicking before the game next week.” “I have to get this dress cleaned and pressed before the dance!” But now, since no one seems to know what’s coming up anytime soon, that whole part of your brilliant brains is sitting unused. But it doesn’t have to. Just think further into the future: SOMEday you’ll be able to go to regular schools again, and you’ll want to have moved forward with the rest of your class. SOMEday you’ll want to go to college or university or get a job, and how you did today in school will matter. And SOMEday you’ll be sitting around with your friends and family, and talking about how crazy a time 2020 was. These WILL happen. So focus on them, as much as you can. Motivation will build there.
So that’s what I’ve got for now. If you have any other suggestions, please let me know and I’ll put them into the next newsletter.
But for now, just know, I have only one motivation for writing here, and it’s YOU. You’re what matters to me, you’re my whole reason for writing at all.
So thank you. Without you, I’d only be able to walk around my yard, sniffing at the fence, hoping to find a little scent, somewhere, of squirrel!