When Your Child Won’t Practice


When my friend Jessica’s son Alex was in elementary school, he loved soccer. Alex would spend hours in their backyard “shooting on goal,” only coming in when it was dark and he was spent. I envisioned his tired soul easily finishing homework and succumbing to sleep. I’m not sure if this last part was true or simply what I imagined would happen with such a child. Because of his natural soccer talent, as well as the many extra hours of backyard practice, Alex was soon a skilled soccer player. 

My son Daniel liked soccer nearly as much as Alex from elementary school on. We bought one of those kick-back nets for a birthday gift fairly early, and I figured that, like Alex, Daniel would spend hours in our backyard practicing. He did practice some at first, but it never really took off. Not even sort of. Daniel played on a soccer team during those years and loved it, but rarely practiced on his own beyond that.

Daniel has also enjoyed playing the saxophone for many years and has been in the school jazz band since sixth grade. Since his jazz band experiences have happened in middle and high school classes, Daniel played his instrument at school each day. But at home—nada. Given how much Daniel loves soccer and sax, his lack of practicing never made sense to me.

Then I read The Four Tendencies, by Gretchen Rubin, and suddenly things became much clearer. Rubin’s book is about what motivates us to “get things done” in our lives. She breaks people into four types based on how they respond to expectations—those that are inner (from the self), and those that are outer (from others).

The Four Tendencies

Upholders respond readily and easily to both outer and inner expectations.

Questioners ask and wonder about all expectations. They meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified. So in effect questioners respond only to inner expectations—those that come from themselves rather than the outside world.

Obligers respond readily to outer expectations (those put on them by other people or groups), but struggle to meet inner expectations.

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

Turns out Daniel is an Obliger (as well as an extrovert). Thus, he regularly showed up for team soccer practices, knowing his teammates were counting on him to be there. And being an extrovert, practicing with a group refueled him. However, Daniel was much less likely to practice soccer skills on his own with no buddies around, as this just didn’t motivate him. The same went for saxophone. Daniel loved playing his sax in jazz band practices and performances. Alone in his room, not so much.

Seeing my son’s behavior through this Four Tendencies lens reduced my frustration about his lack of extra practicing. Rubin notes that when Obligers want to meet an inner expectation—to exercise, to take an online course, to start their own company—they will almost inevitably fail unless they use a work-around. For Obligers, the vital work-around for motivating themselves to get something done is to create outer accountability. Obligers need to build in a structure bigger than themselves which expects them to show up or complete something.

What To Do

In Daniel’s case, bringing a friend over specifically to play soccer at the park with him would be one way to create outer accountability. Signing Daniel up for some sort of one-on-one soccer skills coaching would be another way to build in outer accountability, as would regular sax lessons with a teacher he admired. Group lessons might work even better than individual ones. When it comes to school work, a respected teacher’s expectations, or working in a small group where everyone is pulling their weight, often serve as mechanisms of outer accountability.

These solutions to the Obliger “stuck points” take some creativity, but it’s better than continuing to nag Daniel to practice the sax or his soccer skills when he’s at home.

Not the Only One

As I read Rubin’s book, it became obvious to me that I am also an Obliger. The way I finished my Ph.D. dissertation was by scheduling meetings with my advisors every Friday. My advisors became my outer accountability. Knowing a Friday meeting was looming motivated me to get the work done. Strange that I didn’t pick up on the fact that Daniel and I are both Obligers. Though maybe it’s not so surprising since sometimes what bothers us most in our kids is something with which we ourselves struggle. 


Don’t forget to check out my new book, Sweet Spots: Helping Your Kids Find ENOUGH in Their Lives, available at Amazon in paperback or kindleIf you like it, I’d be so grateful if you’d write a review on Amazon, and/or tell someone else about it. Thank you! 





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