Parents tell me over and over again, “He is just not motivated…” Relentless requests to “Do your homework,” “Practice your piano,” or “Get off the Xbox and go outside and play,” go unheeded or done with grumbling. Some children do what is needed, but with little effort, not reaching their potential or parents’ standards. Many parents find themselves in the daily struggle. So how do we motivate our children?
First let’s unpack two types of motivation. The first is extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic means “outside” the self. You go to work because you are “extrinsically” motivated with a pay cheque. Buying Ryan a new laptop for doing well in school, or allowing time on the Xbox for doing his homework are both extrinsic motivators. Consequences such as grounding or not being allowed to use the Xbox are also extrinsic motivators. When we impose consequences, the motivator is essentially fear – fear I will be grounded will motivate me to do my homework. Most parents are uncomfortable with offering a laptop for performance, but what about the reward of time on the Xbox or the consequences? While these interventions may get Ryan to do his homework, I propose they do not build motivation. Interestingly payment, rewards or gifts for tasks may be de-motivators. In recent study children rewarded with a gift for doing something nice for another, were less likely to do it again than the children that were not rewarded. Children who did not receive a “gift” for helping out continued to act altruistically. Doing something on your own or “all by myself” fires positive triggers in the brain. This suggests that the payment for doing well may, in fact, de-motivate.
While extrinsic motivation is externally driven, intrinsic is internally driven. Intrinsic means “inside” the self. It is a motivation that is driven by interest and satisfaction, and it engenders a sense of wellbeing. Being extrinsically rewarded for grades or doing a job is not as rewarding as the intrinsic rewards gained from undertaking and performing well on your own.
So how do we generate this in our children? How do help them find intrinsic motivation?
Components of Intrinsic motivation
When a child can achieve a task, he feels competent. It generates a sense of “I am okay” “I can do this.” “I am okay” builds confidence and the energy to keep going, growing and trying – to take risks. When children “balk” at doing homework, reading, or doing math, we need to understand feelings of competence. Does your child feel competent? If the answer is “no” we as parents have choices. Children become competent through the modelling and support of knowing others. This may require moving alongside them while they do their homework or finding crucial supports such as tutoring when they struggle in school. If they do not feel competent, they may never feel motivated!
Autonomy and Independence
Achieving something “all by myself” is a significant motivator. Remember the first time Dad let go of the back of the bike, and you rode onwards? When we nag our teen – “do your homework!” we actually undercut their autonomy. It sends a message, “You are incapable of getting this done yourself. You need me to make you do it.”
I hear you saying, “YES BUT!”
Firstly, as parents we judge – “Is Ryan competent to do his homework? If yes, then stand back and let your child receive the natural world consequence of not doing their homework. The more you “nag”, the more you undercut their intrinsic motivation. It may also surprise you that many times when parents “back off” their kids slowly begin to step up to the plate.
This does not mean that we do not support our children. Having a structured afterschool routine, boundaries around electronics, asking, “Would you like help?” and a properly equipped homework area are all supports we can offer. We can also support our teen through conversation – not the one when we say, “If you don’t do your homework you’re going to wind up working at McDonald’s,” but the one when we say things like:
What does school mean to you? How do you feel when you are in school? How is school helpful to you? How is it not helpful? What teachers do you like?
How do you learn best – hearing the teacher, reading a book, doing an experiment? Tell me about something that interested you? Can you figure that out yourself? Do you think you could benefit from getting outside help such as a tutor?
This is a tricky one. Do you remember learning something that was soooo interesting? As parents, we know that there are many things in life we have to do. Things we are not really interested in doing. So at times we need to help our children push through to find meaning, or to persevere. Creativity can be helpful –create a math game, go to the science centre, find a video on the topic.
Do you remember being truly motivated when you really liked your teacher? When we feel connected to others, we are more motivated. Teachers. — you can motivate your students by simply building your relationship with them, noticing them in class, getting to know them as individuals. Parents can help by asking, “Would you like to read that with me?” “Can we clean your room together?”
Motivating our children may not always be easy, but take a step back and try to evaluate these components of motivation as a tool to move your child onward –
COMPETENCE, AUTONOMY, MEANING AND RELATEDNESS.