childrenmotivationThere are few things more aggravating to parents than a kid who “doesn’t try.” Whether it’s math homework, dance class or those guitar lessons they begged for but now never practice, we want our children to be eager learners who embrace effort, relish challenges and understand the value of persistence. Too often, what we see instead is foot-dragging avoidance and whiny complaints of “This is boring!”

Finding the fun
Sometimes motivation is easy. When a task is fun and interesting, trying hard feels effortless. A child who loves basketball may endlessly practice free throws. A child who is fascinated by Greek gods may devour books on this topic. All of these are examples of intrinsic motivation because the motivation comes from the enjoyableness of the task itself.

When we can, it’s a good idea to muster intrinsic motivation by turning have-to-do learning tasks into fun-to-do activities. Being playful, using humor, letting kids explore, arousing their curiosity…these are all ways to make learning tasks more enjoyable.

But intrinsic motivation will only take our kids so far. Sometimes learning is just plain work, and motivation needs to come from something beyond the task.

The risks of rewards
Often, when children’s motivation is lagging, adults offer rewards to get kids moving. These tend to work temporarily. Using a sticker chart or offering to buy a small toy will often lead to a short-term increase in the behavior you want. Sometimes that’s all you need. If it’s a just-getting-over-the-hump situation, a small reward can help kids move past a bit of reluctance, especially if the task will become easier or more enjoyable with practice.

But using rewards to inspire motivation has drawbacks. After about three weeks, children tend to get bored with reward systems and parents get fed-up with them. Rewards imply that the task is optional. Kids may decide, “It’s not worth it!” and give both the task and the reward a pass. The may also try to work the system by arguing about the criteria or doing the bare minimum just to get the reward.

Frequent use of rewards can also lead to a very unattractive bargaining attitude in children. You don’t want to train your kids to respond to your every request with a demand of “What do I GET if I do that?”

Rewards can also undermine intrinsic motivation when they imply to children, “This is not something you would choose to do on your own! You’re only doing it for the reward.”

Rewards are about external control. But what we want for our kids is internal motivation that comes from who they are and what they value—motivation they can muster even when the task isn’t pleasant, and when we’re not around to prod them.

Building internal motivation
Based on their extensive research, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester point to three essential needs that underlie internal motivation: competence, autonomy and connection. By addressing these needs, we can help children develop internal motivation.

Mastery is tremendously motivating. When children first learn to ride a bike, they want to do it all day, every day. It’s thrilling to have mastered an important new skill! On the flip side, children will resist and avoid activities which they think they’re bad at doing. Whether it’s writing, baseball or violin lessons, when kids think they’re noticeably worse than their peers at doing some activity, they don’t want to do it. They’re likely to feel embarrassed or ashamed and to complain that the activity is “stupid and boring.”

Sometimes, the answer is to increase children’s competence by addressing skills gaps, learning disabilities or attention issues. Sometimes kids need help understanding how to become competent.

  • Emphasize effort and strategy. Research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues shows that praising kids for effort, rather than their innate abilities, makes them more willing to take on challenges. Children can also benefit from learning study strategies. For instance, studying for a test by actively doing math problems works better than passively glancing over notes. Focusing on effort and strategy gives kids a path toward competence.
  • Clarify the criteria. It’s discouraging for children when they try hard but then hear, “You did it all wrong!” or “You skipped a big part!” If your child tends to jump in without reading the directions, going over the instructions or grading rubric together before your child begins work can prevent tears and wasted effort. Encourage your child to circle or underline key instructions and to check off completed parts of projects, so nothing gets missed.
  •  Point to progress. Seeing their own progress helps kids feel capable. Break down big tasks into smaller steps so your child can see movement toward the goal. “Only one more section left!” Tell stories about times when your child struggled initially and then triumphed. You could say, “You used to have trouble with those kinds of problems, but now you really understand them!”

Nobody likes to feel controlled. Sometimes children are unmotivated because they feel they’re being forced to do something. Obviously, we can’t give kids total freedom to do only what they want to do, but we can minimize resistance by allowing some independence.

  • Offer choices. Giving children some say in how they do a task increases their motivation to do it. Let your child choose between equally acceptable alternatives. This or that? Now or then? Stick to just two or three options, because more can be overwhelming.
  • Give a rationale that makes sense to your child. It’s easier for children to do things when they understand why they need to do them. Kids often complain, “Why do I have to learn this stuff that I’m never going to use?” One possible answer is “Because it gives you a chance to practice skills you’ll use throughout your life, such as getting your work done efficiently, getting information to stick in your head, and working with others.”
  • Encourage problem solving. The best solutions to motivation problems often come from kids themselves. In a calm moment, ask your child, “What do you think would help you get this done?” You may have to be persistent to encourage your child to move beyond complaints toward making a plan.

Relationships are an important source of motivation. Children want to do things that bring them closer to people or groups they care about.

  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Sometimes what kids need to get themselves moving is just to know that someone understands their reluctance. You could say to your child, “You think it’s unfair that your teacher gave you so much to do.”
  • Find role models and social support. Motivation doesn’t have to be solitary. A role model can help kids imagine what they want to become. Having a beloved teacher or being part of a close-knit team inspires children to try hard. Studying with friends can lighten the load of learning. Even just sitting next to someone while working can minimize avoidance and make effort seem less isolating.
  • Have reasonable expectations. Kids generally want to please their parents. This isn’t their only motivation, but it’s an important one. Children never outgrow their wish for their parents to be proud of them. False praise won’t help, but we also don’t want to be stingy with our approval.

No one is 100 percent motivated with all tasks at all times. We all have off days and tasks we’d rather avoid. And children aren’t supposed to show adult-level productivity.

It takes practice and maturity to learn to muster internal motivation for less-than-fun tasks. In the meantime, we need to be patient and have reasonable expectations that reflect what our children typically do now, or just a bit beyond that. And we need to keep in mind that warmth and encouragement are more motivating to kids than criticism.

Have you ever had a special teacher who inspired and motivated you? How did your teacher do this?




This article is for general educational purposes only. It does not constitute and should not substitute for individual professional advice, psychotherapy, or the provision of psychological services.


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