Building Active Minds

The last thing I want to do when I get home is to have a bunch of things engaging me when I walk in the door.  Isn’t it my right after working hard to come home and relax?  With a newcomer to Canada as my spouse, and two elementary-aged kids who haven’t seen me all day that is difficult.  But still, I want to be passive. I want good things to just come to me.  I want to veg in front of the TV, or scrolling through my Facebook news feed.  I have had evenings like that, and my kids notice.

And I see that passivity pass on to them when they gravitate to screen-based games and Microsoft-sponsored free time. R.N. Whitehead, founder of Oxford Learning Centres, has said, “An unmotivated mind is a passive mind…  Being passive means waiting for someone or something else to act for us. Helping a child to develop an active mind is not only one of the greatest gifts a parent can give but also one of the greatest challenges we can face.”

One of the greatest opportunities we have to teach our children is to demonstrate thriving by living with an engaged mind. Play with them. Children can begin engaging with the world around them by learning that while life is full of joy and triumph, it frequently contains failure. In our love for our children and desire for them not to be hurt, we often try to take away their failure. If we fight too many battles for our children, or shelter them from the stings of little defeats, they never learn that victory is won at a cost.  Play with them. Children must learn that engaging in the battle is fun. Failing is a cause for celebration because it means we are trying.

Learning this requires a subtle paradigm shift. We have been sold a bill of goods about self-esteem and failure because someone told us that failure damages self-esteem.  I was sold this idea as a child of Generation X. Many have bought this idea, like a cheap toy that breaks upon first use, and have paid too great a price holding on to it. But it is nonsense.

Failure allows healthy children, and dare I say adults too, to develop self-esteem. Knowing that a child can try, fail, and try again is the beginning. It helps to develop the confidence that somehow he or she can cope (“Somehow I can figure this out”).
Next we must set a structure for our children that will help them experience success. In order for children to build a healthy self-esteem, they must believe that they live in a world in which they can engage and belong. Play with them. In other words, the child must be able to say to himself or herself, “Even if I don’t succeed right away, I am capable of understanding, trying and eventually succeeding.” Punishing an engaged child who fails will likely not be included in this structure.

The next step to motivating children to engage is to relate current tasks to something that is important in his/her own life. Why will this be a good thing to do? What will I gain from the change?  Our job as parents is to help children find the answers to these questions by using examples from their day-to-day world. Initially, you can help this process along by creating small challenges and giving occasional rewards for trying.
Offering stickers, praise, tickets to the water slide or even the occasional cheeseburger can be part of a child’s motivation. Obviously the best and longest lasting motivation comes from the development of a healthy self-esteem and confidence in his or her own mind. But occasional treats are not entirely bad….. especially if they come in the context of play.

So what is the pay-off? You can expect a more engaged child toward both their studies and their responsibilities at home.  The rewards of that are not merely better grades and a cleaner and more organized house.  You will now have a child who communicates better with you, with their teachers, and with the world around them.

(Note – This blog post is a revision of an earlier version of this article published in The Beaumont News, February 16, 2017) –

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