A Parenting Book Club: Can You Teach Drive?

I am part of a small parenting book club. We read a book on parenting, and then we drink coffee and talk about our kids with the book as a guide to get the conversation going. Our latest book is called Drive: 9 Ways to Motivate Your Kids to Achieve by Janine Walker Caffrey.

The funny thing is that about 6 months ago, I started to write about whether you can teach a child who does not seem driven to have drive. As defined by the author, drive is “the need or desire to accomplish….Drive is what separates high achievers from low achievers.” I stopped writing it, because I had no answers in regard to my children. And I found myself looking inward. Could I teach it to myself?

I have an eight year old who came into the world driven to win. He is highly competitive. He gets a thrill out of completing a task. He keeps busy. He invents games. He admires other children who share those qualities, and they seem to seek him out too.

I also have a nine year old. He moves through the world at a much slower pace. He is a “ponderer”, introspective, extremely reserved. He is also one of the sweetest boys I know and has a great sense of humor. Still, homework can be an emotional minefield, even though he is highly capable. Activities that require energy to get started are avoided. If he has the choice between two books, he will always pick the shortest one. He would rather play video games than almost anything else. He claims he is “not a sports guy” and “not an instrument guy.”

So, when this book was chosen by my book club, I was glad. I could go back to the question that keeps me up at night: can you teach drive? Some would say that drive is something you are born with… or you aren’t. And that is where I fall after watching people with this question in mind, including my sons, but also adults I know. And of course, myself.

The adults I know with a great deal of drive seem to have more energy than the rest of us. They are optimistic and confident. They get bored if there is not a goal they are pursuing. They are competitive. They can focus easily. They have a hard time sitting still. They don’t always know what they want, or what’s best for them, but they don’t stop looking for it.

As an individual, I wish I had more of it.

As a student, I thought I had it in spades. I always wanted to be at the top of the class. I would pick the smartest girl or guy in the room, and decide that I was going to get a higher grade than they did. Sometimes I achieved my goal. Sometimes I did not. But the next time… watch out. I had grand visions of a career as a photojournalist, a politician, and a novelist. But I did not know how to pursue those things and was not confident enough to take the risks necessary to achieve them.

In my working life, before I had children, I wanted to be the go-to girl. I expected to rise quickly. But I rarely liked the job I was in. I got bored easily. I felt like every hour I was at an office desk, the world was spinning and things of wonder were passing me by, never to be caught up with again. According to Drive: 9 Ways to Motivate Your Kids to Achieve, I lacked purpose. You can’t have drive without purpose.

The question I have to ask before I turn to helping my son, is am I driven? Can you be driven in some environments, but not others? Or is that just being competitive without real purpose?  If I were driven, would I be this happy as a stay-at-home mom, only nagged by the thought that I need to be doing more in the world, but never ready to cut back on my time as a parent in order to pursue loftier goals? Can you turn off your drive for a decade and still have it… if I ever had it in the first place?

When I look at my nine year old, I want to help him find his place in the world. I want him to be happy. I worry that if he is “not a sports guy” and “not an instrument guy,” he will not find out what kind of guy he is. I want him to feel his purpose in the world, even though I am a happy adult, but still searching for mine at 45.

So I give him opportunities to try different things: he goes on bike rides, takes swimming lessons, we travel a little, he skis, he’s gone shooting and fishing, he takes golf lessons, he does tae kwan do, he takes piano lessons. This past winter, we went tubing down the ski slope, and he was the one who enjoyed it most. But it was the eight year old who bragged about it to their friends. This summer, he tried a week of sailing camp, and drove an ATV by himself. We read together. We’ve held lemonade stands to earn money for toys, and we’ve held them to raised money for charity. He gets down-time, although between homework and trying to show him all the possible things he could enjoy, I worry not enough of it.

Yet, he doesn’t ask to do anything again. He doesn’t think to tell his friends about his latest adventure or success. He doesn’t seem to have an urge to get better at any of it. He doesn’t need to go faster, be louder, get better grades than his friends or brothers. Or to impress anyone with all he can do.

So, while the book I read for book club got me thinking again – both about how to parent my son and turn on my own inner drive – I am left with no answers. I hope that because he is sweet and good and insightful and thoughtful that he will be happy. But I still don’t think you can teach drive. You can only guide a child toward interesting things, keep him engaged with others, keep trying new things together and pushing him to take on more independence. And be the example by taking risks, trying new things, staying engaged in the world even when you are most absorbed with parenting.

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