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A retired professional tennis player once told me that she thought the best way to help a child get motivated was to support them to follow their passion. Her reasoning being, that firstly if someone is really passionate and interested in an activity, they are more likely to persist despite obstacles and challenges. Secondly as they pursue this interest they learn over time that they have some sense of control over their own destiny and learn that, ‘If I work hard at something, then I get better at it.’
As the new school year progresses it is pertinent to support our child to be self-motivated.
Let’s look at two types of motivation
These motivations are influenced by intrinsic (internal) drivers, such as the pleasure of learning a new sport or satisfaction of learning to read, or extrinsic (external) drivers such as a parent offering a reward for something – ‘If you do a good job at tennis I will buy you a muffin afterwards.’
When we are looking to increase our child’s self-motivation, we are wanting to do everything we can to support their intrinsic motivation. Unfortunately, the flip from intrinsic to extrinsic can happen easily, and we need to watch out for this!
The foundations for a healthy brain motivation system are laid by providing a loving, safe and predictable environment. This includes keeping strong family connections, continuing to do family activities, as well as creating structure and routine with inherent expectations for doing homework, musical instrument practice or small household chores.
Anxiety can inhibit natural motivation. A child’s inherent curiosity and motivation spurs them to approach new experiences and progress - we can see this when they are learning to crawl or walk. Creating an environment where a child’s natural curiosity is inhibited, can make the child sit back and miss out on opportunities to learn and explore.
There are many benefits of parenting for a growth mindset, that is praising effort rather than outcome. Evidence shows that children are more likely to persist and work hard if they think their effort is likely to result in progress.
Even telling your child how clever they are or what a gifted soccer player they are, can start to shift the balance from a growth mindset to a fixed mindset. They assume naturals should not need to put in effort, which is not the case.
To encourage your child to persist in the face of difficulty show an interest in your whole child – not just focusing on for example their academics or performance in a particular sport, as research shows that young people very quickly pick up on this and it may begin to shift their mindset.
Coming from a parent who is quick to dish out rewards and consequences, the research on use of external rewards and consequences provides food for thought. We want to encourage our child to keep moving forward because of the satisfaction of learning and mastery. When children start to connect learning with rewards (treats, gold stars) or performance goals (an award for being the best reader in the class) we can shift an activity which was once intrinsically motivating to become externally motivated
- ‘Why would I read just for the pleasure of it, if I can read for an ice-cream??’
- ‘If I am not going to get the class award then there is no point in trying and just doing it for the sake of it.’
When we are encouraging our children to persist in ‘having a go’ in many aspects of life, from making their breakfast to learning to swim, mistakes are going to be made. Some of these mistakes are going to cause an inconvenience (eg. milk spilt all over the floor), yet to encourage our child to keep pushing forward we need to have an ‘emotionless response’ to mistakes, or risk deterring them from making progress for fear of a negative parental reaction such as getting in trouble.
Give children as much choice as possible in the activities they engage in, and how and when they engage in them. Once they have committed to an activity however, it is important they see this commitment through (eg. complete the term of art classes or the term of soccer matches) and then re-evaluate. By supporting our child to stay committed to something they have started, we are helping them stick with it long enough to start feeling that reinforcing sense of competence that the tennis professional spoke of.
Autonomy is a key aspect of self-motivation. When a child has choices we are much more likely to see their internal motivation and commitment rise to the fore; indeed this ties in with the recommendation from the tennis professional to support your child to pursue their passion, rather than push them into doing something you would like them to do.
Often children either struggle to see or are not shown the ‘bigger picture’. Many of the subjects they learn in school are to help them develop essential life skills like keeping themselves safe, looking after their health or those used in a workplace. When we set rules or deliver consequences it can be enlightening if we explain that we are not just doing it to be the boss, but to help guide our child and teach them skills for life.
Angela Duckworth writes in Grit, ‘whatever your age, it’s never too early or late to begin cultivating a sense of purpose.’ She provides an example where students are asked ‘How could the world be a better place?’ They were then asked to make connections between what they were learning and how they could apply this to make the world a better place. Making this connection boosted their effort and engagement in their schoolwork.
If you watch a child for more than five minutes, it is clear that they love to play! Children find play engaging, rewarding, when playing with others it meets their need for social connection and it is an activity they find intrinsically motivating. In our busy lives of formal activities, making plenty of room for play is a great way to keep child stress levels in check.
Notice what other activities they persist at and enjoy and support them to have more opportunities to do these things. Activities which involve close relationships with others can be particularly rewarding and motivating.
Just as we can notice our child’s behaviour, they notice ours too. Research found parents who role-model persistence in front of their infant, subsequently influenced the effort invested in a difficult task by their infants! It is interesting that even at such a young age they are noticing and making inferences from our behaviours that guide their own.
It would seem the wise words of the tennis professional, gained from her own insight and intuition, hit the nail on the head with regards to getting kids motivated! As parents we must take a step back, slow down and tap into our own intuition so we can provide our child with the space they need to connect with their own internal motivation.
Duckworth, A (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Scribner, Simon & Schuster.
Dweck, CS (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Leonard, J, Lee, Y & Schulz, LE (2017). Infants make more attempts to achieve a goal when they see adults persist. Science. 357, 1290-4.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2018). Understanding Motivation: Building the Brain Architecture That Supports Learning, Health, and Community Participation Working Paper No. 14. www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Ryan, RM, & Deci, EL (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.