What Motivates Your Child
Intrinsic Vs Extrinsic Motivation
In psychology, there are two main types of motivation: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity for its inherent enjoyment rather than for a separable outcome.
Extrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity, not for its inherent enjoyment but rather for a separable outcome.
Researchers have found that when people are engaging in an activity out of intrinsic motivation, the quality of engagement and the results are better.1
It is therefore believed that intrinsic motivation is preferable over extrinsic motivation.
Motivation For Kids
So, what can parents do to motivate their child?
For intrinsic motivation to appear, a child has to enjoy an activity for its pure enjoyment.
Rewards, praises, and punishment will not inspire a child to become intrinsically interested in something.
In fact, it does the opposite.
Studies have shown that when rewards or a controlling factor is introduced, a person’s intrinsic motivation decreases.1
How To Motivate Your Child
If your child is not intrinsically motivated or if their intrinsic motivation is not enough, we then have to work with their extrinsic motivation.
Fortunately, not all extrinsic motivations are equal.
The four types of extrinsic motivation lie on a spectrum of autonomy, from the least autonomous (externally regulated) to the most autonomous (integrated).
When extrinsic motivation is integrated, people have internalized the cause of a behavior. They then become self-determined and conducts an activity autonomously, producing higher quality results.
Because integrated motivation has many similar qualities as intrinsic motivation, helping children internalize a behavior so that they become integrated is extremely important.
Here is what decades of research have found to help enhance intrinsic motivation as well as integrated extrinsic motivation.
1. Stop trying to motivate
Your attempts to motivate your child are most likely doing the exact opposite — demotivating your child.
To be intrinsically motivated is to enjoy an activity on its own.
If someone doesn’t enjoy an activity, no amount of pushing, bribing or threatening can make them start to like it for its pure enjoyment.
So the traditional ways parents use to motivate — rewarding, praising, nagging, scolding and punishing — is counterproductive.
2. Be inspiring instead of controlling
Rewarding, praising, nagging, scolding and punishing are ways to control someone’s behavior.
Controlling is different from motivating. Controlling is applying pressure or offering an incentive that is separable from the activity itself.
Autonomy, which refers to self-initiating and self-regulating of one’s own actions, is an essential condition for intrinsic motivation.
Numerous studies have shown that sense of autonomy can faciliate one’s intrinsic motivation.
For instance, when students are free from pressure to learn, they act with a sense of autonomy resulting in higher quality learning, better conceptual understanding, and longer retention.1
On the other hand, when children feel controlled or that they are studying for a different reason other than enjoying the learning itself, their intrinsic motivation decreases.2
So to effectively motivate their children, parents should aim to inspire instead of control.
The best way to inspire is by showing the beauty in an activity itself and how one can enjoy doing it.
- Show children that learning a new skill and mastering it is fun.
- Pique their curiosity in the new skill by showing them the different uses of it.
- Celebrate success milestones together (but do not praise conditionally).
- Be supportive, provide constructive feedback that can enhance a sense of competence and do not criticize.
- When children are stuck at a problem, help them view it as a “challenge they can conquer”, not a “difficulty they need to overcome”.
- Do not refer to the activity as children’s “job”.
- Do not use “A break from the activity”, such as “No homework”, as a reward.
3. Help them internalize and become integrated
Some activities do not lend themselves well to enjoyment.
When that happens, parents can help children become integrated by identifying with and internalizing the need for the activity.
Children must grasp the meaning and worth of doing it to fully internalize it.
For example, training for soccer can be hard at times.
But practicing is a critical and necessary part of achieving mastery.
Explain and help your child understand that if one wants to be good at soccer, they need to practice even when it’s sometimes not very enjoyable.
4. Help them decide and let them decide
Autonomy is an essential part of creating intrinsic motivation or integrating extrinsic motivation.
Children need to be able to make their own decisions to feel a sense of autonomy, even when you disagree with the decision because self-determination is one of the most important intrinsic motivator.3
Many parents are afraid that if they let their children make their own decisions, the children will inevitably make the wrong ones and fail.
Just as falling is an essential part of learning to walk, making wrong decisions is an essential part of learning to make good decisions.
Let them decide, with your guidance, and then let them face the natural consequence.
For example, if a child refuses to do his homework, even after you explain the importance of it, he needs to face the consequence in school.
If a child refuses to engage in an activity that is important to you, ask yourself why you want it so much.
There are things children must do, such as going to school, which is not negotiable. If a child doesn’t want to go, find out the reason why. Are there bullies in school? Are the teachers mean? Become their advocates and work with the school to remove those obstacles.
But there are things only we believe children must do, but they actually don’t have to. Children are not meant to live our lives. Just because we regret not playing the piano doesn’t mean our kids need to fulfill our dreams. Children have their own lives and their own dreams to pursue.
5. Find an optimal challenge
One of the best ways to inspire intrinsic motivation in children is to help them feel a sense of competence.
If an activity is too easy, a child will feel bored very soon.
But if an activity is too hard, a child will feel discouraged.
An optimal challenge is one that is slightly more difficult than what a child has already mastered, but is still achievable through practice and some hard work.
6. Grow relatedness through parenting
Because extrinsically motivated behavior is often not inherently interesting, the primary reason children are likely to engage in it, to begin with, is that the behavior is valued by people they feel connected to.
Studies show that a sense of belonging and relatedness can facilitate internalization.4
Relatedness refers to the emotional and personal bonds among individuals.
It has been extensively studied in education due to its significance and importance in students’ performance.
In the classroom, when students feel respected and cared for by the teacher, they are more intrinsically motivated to learn.5
Relatedness with parents is particularly important in students’ motivation.
At home, relatedness is developed through secure and satisfying connections between parents and their children.
Parents who adopt an authoritative parenting style bond with their children more and create an autonomy-supportive environment, which in turn increases their children’s self-regulation and motivation in classrooms.6
An autonomy-supportive environment is one in which parents value autonomy in their children. They encourage children to choose and participate in solving problems. The home climate is democratic rather than autocratic.
7. Get involved
Another way to promote relatedness is parents getting involved in the activity and demonstrating how much they value such activity.
In fact, one of the most reliable predictors of children’s school performance is the level of parental involvement.7,8
There are multiple ways parents can get involved.
For sports, parents can coach the activity or practice with their children.
For school, parents can get involved by volunteering in the class, reading to them every night and doing homework exercises together.
Keep in mind that getting involved doesn’t mean controlling.
Autonomy is still required to motivate your children.
- 1.Scott Rigby C, Deci EL, Patrick BC, Ryan RM. Beyond the intrinsic-extrinsic dichotomy: Self-determination in motivation and learning. Motiv Emot. 1992;16(3):165-185. doi:10.1007/bf00991650
- 2.Grolnick WS, Ryan RM. Autonomy in children’s learning: An experimental and individual difference investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1987;52(5):890-898. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.110
- 3.Zuckerman M, Porac J, Lathin D, Deci EL. On the Importance of Self-Determination for Intrinsically-Motivated Behavior. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 1978;4(3):443-446. doi:10.1177/014616727800400317
- 4.Ryan R, Deci E. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemp Educ Psychol. 2000;25(1):54-67. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10620381.
- 5.Ryan RM, Powelson CL. Autonomy and Relatedness as Fundamental to Motivation and Education. The Journal of Experimental Education. 1991;60(1):49-66. doi:10.1080/00220973.1991.10806579
- 6.Grolnick WS, Ryan RM. Parent styles associated with children’s self-regulation and competence in school. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1989:143-154. doi:10.1037/0022-0618.104.22.168
- 7.Griffith J. Relation of Parental Involvement, Empowerment, and School Traits to Student Academic Performance. The Journal of Educational Research. September 1996:33-41. doi:10.1080/00220671.1996.9944441
- 8.Jeynes WH. The Relationship Between Parental Involvement and Urban Secondary School Student Academic Achievement. Urban Education. January 2007:82-110. doi:10.1177/0042085906293818