For most of childhood, kids are taught to respond in prescribed ways, whether in social settings, schoolwork, or while playing sports. We teach them good manners, how to rephrase an expert point of view in a persuasive essay, and how to act like a model citizen. 

What’s often missing, however, is enough opportunities for kids to express themselves and find their own authentic voice and contribution. When it becomes really vital for them to have their own opinion and voice, they often don’t understand how to make sense of their own ideas, at least not enough to translate them into meaningful plans for their lives. 

That’s why it’s important to engage kids throughout their childhood about their personal ambitions and aspirations for the future. It’s a skill that needs to be cultivated over time, where they can both identify their own ideas as well as make moves toward them. 

That’s where Motivational Interviewing (MI) can come in as a learnable framework for parents and educators. Fundamentally, MI is about engaging kids through a discovery process that helps evoke or draw out their own ideas and motivations. We all intuitively know that intrinsic motivation lasts longer, and MI is a method you can use to tap into it. 

How does it work?

It starts with the core concept that everyone already knows deep down who they are and what they want, they just need some support and guidance to tap into it. That’s a very different assumption than is often taken with kids. Too often, we assume kids don’t understand themselves, the world, or how to put together a life plan that is cogent and meaningful. When we start with a positive assumption, however, we start with the groundwork for trust and courage to explore ideas and dreams. 

Through open-ended questions and a process to reflect externally, kids are invited to explore their ideas regarding their future. More than just identifying the specific goals or ambitions, MI asks kids to explore the underlying reasons behind their goals. By helping kids identify both their goals and the motivations behind their goals, they become clearer and more committed to themselves. 

The trick is to ask truly open-ended questions without preparing your own response. That takes practice and often won’t yield the depth of response you’re looking for the first few times you try. Nonetheless, it’s a good place to start. 

Read the next article on Motivational Interviewing: Transferring ownership and building accountability.