Motivating a Four Year Old
Imagine you just told your son that his favorite pet was dead. Then you told him to get out on that soccer field and “have fun!” That is exactly what you would have thought happened to Noble by the way he was “participating” at the start of soccer last week. As the motivated instructor encouraged the 4 year olds to dribble the ball 15 yards to the line and race back to the parents on the sideline, Noble barely walked, and half heartedly tapped the ball with his foot. By the time the other kids were at the line, Noble was probably 10 feet in front of me. Then, as the kids raced back, Noble just slowly turned around and with an apathetic expression, slowly chugged back.
Admittedly, I was getting really frustrated. It took everything in my power not to shout out, “Come on! Quit being a lazy ass!” Man, that would have felt great if I did, though. Instead, I’m on the sidelines wondering how I can inspire motivation in my 4 year old.
As kids get older, the stuff we have to think about gets pretty complex. In my head I’m thinking about motivation, commitment to a team, participation and supporting the team. It wasn’t long ago that all I had to instill was not eating (insert name of object), appropriate volume levels, and acceptable ways to talk to your parents. Hmm, come to think of it, I’m still working on those. But we’ve also added the more complex stuff.
It would be so easy to recognize that he doesn’t like soccer, quit, and move on. But soccer is only 8 weeks, and what am I really teaching him if we did that? I’m fine with not doing something because you don’t like it. But if he makes a commitment to a group, and he gets used to bailing every time he doesn’t have fun, then I am teaching my son nothing. Or worse, I’m teaching him how easy it is to be a quitter. It’s also a lazy way out of parenting, in my opinion. Doing everything just to keep a smile on my child is a pretty lame way to parent. The harder, but more rewarding work, is figuring out a way to inspire that child and build them up.
It took me the first part of soccer to figure out how to reach into Noble’s lazy ass, mopey body, and extract some kind of excitement. Noble likes being tickled on his neck, so I took an opportunity on water break to tickle his neck and make some jokey fun about soccer. It was a risk, because he could have easily yelled at me to stop and made me look like a total tool. But no risk, no reward, so I went for it.
It helped that the next game was trying to kick the ball at the instructor, as she ran past, to try and hit her. So Noble and I both talked about how hard and Hulk-like he’d smash the ball at her. This got him motivated. And I noticed that he was still feeling overwhelmed with how many kids were there. He liked hanging close to me. My answer to that was to be as engaged as I possibly could whenever he was close to me. Like a battery, it sort of recharged him to feel comfortable going out and running the exercises. That seemed to be working.
I don’t think Noble is hugely competitive. When it comes to racing to get a ball, he usually does the chivalrous thing and allows the other player to kick the ball first. But this time was actually different! Staying in the excited, joke making mode, we talked about the best superhero to be for racing to get the ball, and he seemed receptive to that. Incidentally, that superhero would be Flash. So when it was his turn, he raced over, got the ball, AND SCORED! And guess what?! He loved it! And then he floated away because his ego inflated to the size of a blimp.
At the end of the 8 weeks, when soccer is over, if Noble decides he doesn’t care for soccer, then we won’t sign up for next year. But I want to make sure it’s because he genuinely would rather not play soccer. I really want him to have a taste of all aspects of the sport before he decides he doesn’t like it. This includes dribbling the ball around, getting an opportunity to score, playing with other kids, and also getting scored on and losing the ball.
I think what I’ve learned about this experience is that this isn’t just “pull up a chair and watch your kid” soccer. It’s a constant state of supporting and tweaking how you support to hopefully inspire motivation and excitement, but at the same time avoid being that dad that won’t shut up and treats their kid like a robot that only responds to yelled out commands – “Get the ball! Run over there! Chase him! No hands! Pass the ball! Shoot the ball! Don’t pee on the field! Pull up your pants!”