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7 Steps To Motivate Your Child

Children are motivated by three basic psychological needs – autonomy, mastery, and relatedness. Kids are intrinsically motivated when these three needs are met, according to the self-determination theory proposed by psychologists E.L. Deci and R.M. Ryan at the University of Rochester.

There are eight ways and six key factors parents can use to satisfy those needs and motivate their children. Moreover, parents should not punish their children or give financial incentives for their achievements as a way to motivate them.

Here are 8 science-proven ways to help your child develop an internal drive, even for tasks children don’t enjoy initially.

1. Stop trying to motivate kids the conventional way

Traditional methods of motivating children, such as external rewards and negative consequences, do not produce long-term results.

Researchers have identified two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

  • Intrinsic motivation leads to doing an activity for its inherent enjoyment.
  • Extrinsic motivation leads to doing an activity not for its inherent enjoyment but for a separate outcome.

Intrinsic motivation yields better results, whereas extrinsic motivation often falls short in the long run.

Rewards and punishment can only motivate a child’s behavior extrinsically while reducing the child’s intrinsic motivation.

While rewards or fear of punishment may produce immediate results, these methods also produce a power struggle. Sooner or later, children will stop responding. Research shows that these short-term methods also stifle the intrinsic motivation in your child, if there was any initially, making the problem even worse.

To motivate a child intrinsically for long-term results, stop using conventional methods and instead focus on helping your child develop intrinsic desires.​1​

A grinning young girl carrying her school bag on her back.

2. Spark interest and curiosity

Spark your child’s natural curiosity and interest in the task to create intrinsic motivation.

If studying is one of the long-term goals, create a ‘learning-is-fun’ environment. Encourage learning for the sake of acquiring new knowledge rather than focusing on doing homework or getting good grades. You can also inspire curiosity by showing your child different ways to apply school subjects to the real world.​2​

The greatest challenge here is prioritizing your child’s love for learning over your eagerness to see them succeed. Learning is no longer fun when there is pressure to complete school work or get a good grade.

Consider the bigger picture. A child will naturally strive for success when they’re engaged and enjoying the process. You might have to be okay with them not getting the best grades at first because learning, not getting good grades, is the most important thing. Teach your child that the learning experience itself is the best reward.

3. Give children a sense of autonomy and self-determination

Studies have consistently shown that when a child feels a sense of control over their choices, they are more motivated. Some degree of autonomy is necessary for a child to enjoy what they do.​3​

For instance, give children options to choose the extracurricular activity they enjoy. Providing guidance and explaining the pros and cons will be helpful, but your child will need to be able to make their own decisions to feel motivated.

However, given unlimited freedom, children may avoid challenging or tedious tasks like studying or doing chores. This is where the next step becomes critical: building a solid relationship to help them internalize the reasons for those tasks.

4. Strengthen relationships to help children internalize the importance of a task

Children enjoy doing things that matter to people they care about. Studies show that feeling close and connected to others helps kids take these activities to heart because their ties with others are a big reason they’re motivated.​4​

Parents play a crucial role in this. A stronger bond with your child can lead to them listening to you more, adopting your values, and even being motivated by things that are important to you.​5​

Your relationship with your child can be strengthened through using an authoritative parenting style.

Authoritative parents are warm, responsive, and attentive to their children’s needs while setting high but achievable standards and explaining the boundaries. Using reasoning rather than punishment to discipline is also essential in forming trust and a close relationship.

5. Get involved

Getting involved in your child’s activities without being controlling is an effective way to motivate kids. Research shows that parental involvement strongly predicts a child’s academic success.​6​

When you participate in your child’s activities, it conveys the value you place on the activities.

For instance, you can coach or watch your child’s sports games. In school, you can volunteer to help in class. You can read with your child at home to help them form good learning habits.

6. Challenge children just enough

Having feelings of accomplishment is another key to a child’s motivation.

Find the right balance of challenge for your child. Your child can become easily bored if a task or activity is overly simple. On the other hand, if the task is too difficult, feelings of discouragement and self-doubt may start to creep in. 

An optimal challenge is slightly more difficult than a child has already mastered to push them out of their comfort zone, but it is still achievable through practice and hard work.​7​

7. Promote a growth mindset

To help your child learn new things or master a skill, instill the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and effort. This is called the growth mindset.

With a growth mindset, children are intrinsically motivated to embrace challenges, persist through setbacks, and nurture a lifelong joy of learning.​8​

You can foster this positive attitude through the following strategies.

  • Praise effort during the process over innate talent. For instance, rather than saying, “Good work,” or “You’re so smart,” try, “I like how you tried several ways to solve the puzzle.” This emphasizes the process over the results.
  • Encourage a love of learning by framing setbacks as opportunities, not threats. The journey itself has value.
  • Provide constructive and positive feedback focused on potential and improvement, not just failure.
  • Use positive reinforcement or big celebration sparingly so they retain significance. If every success is rewarded, the child begins to expect rewards, turning them into external factors that drive extrinsic motivation.

8. Set a mastery goal

Set goals focusing on developing competence or mastering a new skill rather than aiming to win.

Mastery goals prioritize learning for its own sake, while performance goals highlight the importance of achievement.

A study has shown that children with mastery goals have higher self-efficacy, are more likely to persist at challenging tasks, and have a higher intrinsic motivation to learn.​9​

What are the key factors that influence a child’s motivation?

The key factors influencing a child’s intrinsic motivation include a sense of control, self-belief, family dynamics, peer influence, goal orientation, and overall health.

Locus of control: Children tend to be intrinsically motivated when they have a say in their decisions and choices. This is called internal locus of control, which studies find to be correlated with higher motivation.​10​

Self-efficacy: Belief in their abilities to accomplish can increase a child’s confidence and self-motivation. Encouraging a growth mindset can increase a child’s belief in growing their capabilities.

Paren-child relationship: A nurturing and supportive bond can elevate a child’s motivation, especially when parents embody and model motivational attitudes, which children often emulate.

Peer influence: The impact of peers is twofold; they can motivate through social pressure and by fostering a sense of belonging within a group. Positive peer interactions can significantly boost a child’s drive and enthusiasm.

Goal orientation: If a child is genuinely interested in achieving a specific mastery goal, their motivation naturally increases. However, setting goals without underlying interest or desire will not effectively motivate kids.

Physical and emotional well-being: A child’s motivation is also linked to health. Persistent illness or emotional distress can divert their focus and energy, making motivation more challenging.

What is a growth mindset?

A growth mindset is a belief that abilities can be developed through perseverance, dedication, and hard work. It is the understanding that talents and skills are not fixed, but rather can grow through effort. Such a mindset encourages kids to embrace challenges, persist despite setbacks, and see effort as a path to mastery and competence. This approach significantly boosts motivation in children, helping them achieve in school.

Why is intrinsic motivation better?

Studies have shown that when people engage in an activity out of intrinsic motivation, the quality of engagement and the results are better.

In one study at the University of Rochester, researchers asked undergraduate students to read an article and then record their emotions reading it. One week later, they tested the student’s ability to recall the information. Students who found the article interesting or enjoyable scored better than those who didn’t recall and comprehend the data, even after accounting for their differences in verbal aptitude.

How does age affect the motivation levels in children?

Several studies have found that intrinsic motivation levels in children generally decline during adolescence. However, several factors are inversely correlated with the decline. High achievers tend to have less decline in motivation.​11​

A school-wide focus on mastery goals rather than performance goals is associated with less decline in motivation levels.​12​

As children age, the change in motivation levels also varies by subject; motivation for kids notably declines in math but remains relatively stable in social studies.​13​

However, the effect of age on motivation is only limited to children. Other studies have found that motivation levels are stable or increase as adults age.​14​

How does motivation affect a child’s academic success?

Research findings consistently show that intrinsic motivation is associated with better academic success. When a child enjoys learning, they tend to do better in school.​15​

What is the most common mistake when parents try to motivate their children?

One of the most common mistakes parents make when motivating their children is relying on punishment or unnatural consequences. Parents in many cultures have traditionally used fear to motivate, but this strategy is fraught with issues.

Although punishment often generates quick success initially, it creates the wrong kind of motivation – extrinsic motivation. The effectiveness of this fear-based extrinsic motivation will diminish over time. It will eventually stop working, or the punishment will have to increase to severe measures, which can border on abuse. 

This approach can also backfire. Studies have shown that when a controlling factor, such as privilege removal, is introduced, the person’s intrinsic drive decreases and performance declines.

Should you pay your child for good grades?

No, you should not pay your child for earning good grades in school. This practice has two major flaws – one practical and one ethical.

Practically, paying children for academic achievement can undermine their intrinsic motivation to learn. When they expect external compensation for good performance, their inner drive may weaken. By tying money to grades, you risk diminishing your child’s innate love of learning. In addition, this method needs continuous application to be effective. Do you plan on paying your kid for grades throughout their high school and college years?

Ethically, it sets a precedent that monetary compensation is expected for fulfilling personal responsibilities and achievements, which may not align with the values you want to instill in your child.

Do you need more help with motivating your child?

If you want additional tips and a step-by-step plan, the following online course is a great place to start.

It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate about learning.

Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.

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Venn Diagram of a self-motivated child - Autonomy (develop self-drive through autonomous support), relationship (utilize the most powerful motivator), emove toxic stress (avoid demotivators and distractions), mastery (build skills and competence to fuel motivation)

HI, I’M PAMELA.

I’m a writer and parenting specialist. I’m also a mom and the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain, a parenting publication with over 2.8M readership. I help parents raise thriving kids.

Join the hundreds of parents who have successfully used this long-term motivation strategy and discover how science can help your child reach their potential.

Yours sincerely,
Pamela Li
MS, Stanford University
MBA, Harvard University

pamela li

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What’s Included

1. HOW TO START THE TRANSFORMATION

The secret behind this motivation strategy is that it starts with YOUR mindset and expectations. If your mind isn’t in this the right way or has the right expectations, this strategy will not work!

Commit to this and stick with it even when things get tough, believing you can ride it out and succeed.

2. THE 4-STEP MOTIVATION STRATEGY

Learn the four essential elements of motivating kids. Then, you will learn the WHYs and HOWs to adapt this strategy to your unique situation.

3. HOW TO AVOID THE BIGGEST MISTAKE

Avoiding the loss of motivation is as important as gaining it. You’ll learn to systematically look for and eliminate toxic demotivators from your child’s life.

4. HOW TO USE THE MOST IMPORTANT MOTIVATOR TO DISCIPLINE

Adopt the discipline blueprint to create the most important motivator. You’ll learn how to use it to build your child’s internal motivation.

5. HOW TO USE THE MOST POWERFUL MOTIVATOR TO INSPIRE

Once you learn the most powerful motivator, you’ll be empowered to guide your child and help them develop an unstoppable inner drive to achieve.

6. HOW TO FIND THE MOST DIRECT MOTIVATOR TO ACHIEVE SUCCESS

Your child’s brain chemistry and learning style can affect how they absorb information. I will teach you how to look for and use it to facilitate your child’s learning.

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Put all three motivators together and create the optimal self-drive for your child to reach their potential and succeed.

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Frequently Asked Questions

References

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  2. 2.
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    Reeve J. A Self-determination Theory Perspective on Student Engagement. Handbook of Research on Student Engagement. Published online 2012:149-172. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_7
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    Froiland JM. Parental Autonomy Support and Student Learning Goals: A Preliminary Examination of an Intrinsic Motivation Intervention. Child Youth Care Forum. Published online November 3, 2010:135-149. doi:10.1007/s10566-010-9126-2
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    Guay F, Denault AS, Renauld S. School attachment and relatedness with parents, friends and teachers as predictors of students’ intrinsic and identified regulation. Contemporary Educational Psychology. Published online October 2017:416-428. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2017.10.001
  6. 6.
    Fan W, Williams CM. The effects of parental involvement on students’ academic self‐efficacy, engagement and intrinsic motivation. Educational Psychology. Published online December 11, 2009:53-74. doi:10.1080/01443410903353302
  7. 7.
    Froiland JM, Oros E, Smith L, Hirchert T. Intrinsic Motivation to Learn: The Nexus Between Psychological Health and Academic Success. Contemp School Psychol. Published online January 2012:91-100. doi:10.1007/bf03340978
  8. 8.
    Ng B. The Neuroscience of Growth Mindset and Intrinsic Motivation. Brain Sciences. Published online January 26, 2018:20. doi:10.3390/brainsci8020020
  9. 9.
    Lai ER. Motivation: A literature review. Person Research’s Report. 2011;6:40-41.
  10. 10.
    Skinner EA. Perceived control: Motivation, coping, and development. Self-Efficacy. Published online 2014:91-106.
  11. 11.
    Gottfried AE, Marcoulides GA, Gottfried AW, Oliver PH, Guerin DW. Multivariate latent change modeling of developmental decline in academic intrinsic math motivation and achievement: Childhood through adolescence. International Journal of Behavioral Development. Published online July 2007:317-327. doi:10.1177/0165025407077752
  12. 12.
    Corpus JH, McClintic-Gilbert MS, Hayenga AO. Within-year changes in children’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivational orientations: Contextual predictors and academic outcomes. Contemporary Educational Psychology. Published online April 2009:154-166. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2009.01.001
  13. 13.
    Gottfried AE, Fleming JS, Gottfried AW. Continuity of academic intrinsic motivation from childhood through late adolescence: A longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology. Published online March 2001:3-13. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.93.1.3
  14. 14.
    Cerasoli CP, Nicklin JM, Ford MT. Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: A 40-year meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 2014:980-1008. doi:10.1037/a0035661
  15. 15.
    Taylor G, Jungert T, Mageau GA, et al. A self-determination theory approach to predicting school achievement over time: the unique role of intrinsic motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology. Published online October 2014:342-358. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.08.002

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