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7 Science-Proven Steps To Motivate Your Child

Find out what motivates your child and how to effectively inspire them using 7 backed-by-research steps. Not all motivations are created equal. Discover the best type of motivation you should instill in your kid.

What Type Of Motivation Does Your Child Have

Motivation is the reason that underlines behavior. In psychology, there are two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

boy lays on couch watching tv, find out What motivates your child

Although these two types of motivations may result in similar behavior, there are differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in terms of qualities and sustainability of the behavior.

Studies have shown that when people engage in an activity out of intrinsic motivation, the quality of engagement and the results are both better​1​.

In one study at the University of Rochester, researchers asked a group of undergraduate students to read an article and then record their emotions reading it. One week later, they tested the students’ ability to recall the information. Students who found the article interesting or enjoyable scored better in recalling and comprehending the information, even after accounting for their differences in verbal aptitude.​2​

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What Motivates Your Child And What Does Not

So, what motivates your child?

When it comes to motivating our kids, many parents use the “carrot and stick” approach, such as prizes or behavior charts. Many people find quick success at the beginning, but then it stops working after a while. Even worse, sometimes it backfires. Here is why…

When children are responding to the “carrot and stick”, they are acting on extrinsic motivation. We’ve already seen that the quality of behavior resulting from extrinsic motivation is not as good as intrinsic.

On top of that, you have to keep using the carrot and stick for the desired behavior to continue. That is simply not sustainable in the long term. But there is a third reason…

Using carrot and stick actually reduces intrinsic motivation in kids, if there is any at the beginning. Many studies have shown that when a reward (e.g. ice cream or video game) or a controlling factor (e.g. punishment or privilege removal) is introduced, a person’s intrinsic drive decreases.​1​ In other words, if your child has some interest in an activity at the beginning, your carrot-and-stick “motivation” actually demotivates your child.

For a child to be intrinsically motivated, they have to enjoy an activity for its pure enjoyment. Rewards, praises, and punishment will not inspire someone to become intrinsically interested in the activity. It does the exact opposite.

Does that mean that our hands are tied and there is nothing we can do? Not really. There are A LOT we can do to help our children succeed (more on that later).

How To Use Extrinsic Motivation

If your child is not intrinsically motivated enough, we have to work with their extrinsic motivation.

Fortunately, not all extrinsic motivations are bad. There are four types of extrinsic motivation. They lie on a spectrum of autonomy, from the least autonomous (externally regulated) to the most autonomous (integrated). Among these four extrinsic motivations, integrated motivation is the most desirable type.

Integrated motivation results when people have fully identified and assimilated a cause to the self. So what does that mean?

That means a person has examined the cause and found it to agree with their own values and needs, i.e. they have internalized a cause and generated self-motivation. They then become self-determined and behave autonomously, producing better results.

Because integrated motivation has many similar qualities as intrinsic motivation, helping children internalize a behavior so that they become integrated is extremely important.

How To Motivate Kids To Study – 7 Science-backed Steps

1. Stop trying to motivate (the traditional way)

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 to motivate children are — 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. Being a controlling parent cannot motivate children intrinsically because you are applying pressure or offering an incentive that is separable from the activity itself.

The opposite of being controlled is being autonomous, which means self-initiating one’s own actions. Being autonomous is an essential condition for intrinsic or integrated motivation. Studies have shown that having a sense of autonomy can enhance a person’s intrinsic motivation.

For instance, when students are free from pressure to learn (e.g. during distance learning), they show higher quality learning, better conceptual understanding, and longer retention.​1​ On the other hand, when students feel controlled or that they are studying for a different reason other than enjoying the learning itself, their intrinsic motivation decreases.​3​

So to effectively motivate your child to do well in school, make sure you aim to inspire, not to control. The best way to motivate your child 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.
  • Create a learning environment instead of a doing work situation, i.e. we learn to acquire new knowledge, not just to complete homework or get good grades.
  • Pique their curiosity in a new skill by showing them the different uses of it.
  • Let them choose activities according to the child’s interests without pressure.
  • Celebrate success milestones together (but do not over-praise or praise conditionally).
  • Be supportive, provide constructive feedback, not criticism, that can enhance a sense of competence.
  • 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. If that’s the case, help your child become integrated.

Help them identify why an activity is important and help them internalize the need for it. Children must grasp the meaning and worth of doing something 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 they want 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 crucial in 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 they disagree with the decision because self-determination is one of the most important intrinsic motivators.​4​

Many parents are afraid that if they let their children make their own decisions, kids will inevitably make the wrong ones and fail. But just as falling is an inevitable part of learning to walk, making wrong decisions is an inevitable and important part of learning to make good decisions. Kids also need opportunities to practice decision making to gain self-confidence. If the activity is not health- or safety-related, 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, let him face the consequence in school.

If something is not health- or safety-related but you have a strong desire for her to engage, it is important to 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 when we were young 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 quickly. But if an activity is too hard, a child will feel discouraged or have self-doubt.

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.

It is also important to help children gain a growth mindset. Children develop a growth mindset when they believing that “talent” is malleable. Skills and mastery can improve through practice and hard work. Let them know that the process of practicing and working through problems is what matters. Help and encourage your child to practice. When they finally master a new skill, that sense of competence will become a significant internal motivator, setting their path to success.

teacher talks to kids around the table, showing how to motivate kids

6. Grow relatedness through authoritative parenting

Because the extrinsically motivated activity is often not inherently interesting, the primary reason children are likely to engage in it, is that the behavior is valued by people they feel connected to.

Science tells us that a sense of belonging and relatedness can facilitate internalization​5​. Relatedness refers to the emotional and personal bonds among individuals.

That means children are more likely to internalize a cause valued by someone they feel related to or they have bonded with.

The importance of relatedness has been extensively studied in education due to its significance in students’ performance. In the classroom, when students feel respected and cared for by the teacher, they are more intrinsically motivated to learn.​6​

Relatedness with parents is particularly important in kids’ motivation. At home, relatedness is developed through secure and satisfying connections between parents and their children.

It comes as no surprise that when you have bonded with your child, they are much more likely to listen to you, adopt your value and be motivated to engage in activities you deem important.

So how do you bond effectively with your child?

Studies show that parents who adopt an authoritative parenting style bond with their children more. These are parents who are warm and responsive to their children’s needs. They also have high standards and set limits for their kids.

Psychologists find that authoritative parents create an autonomy-supportive environment that can increase their children’s self-regulation and motivation in classrooms.​7​

An autonomy-supportive environment is one in which parents value autonomy in their children. They encourage kids 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 that.

One of the most reliable predictors of children’s school performance is the level of parental involvement in their kids’ learning.​8,9​

There are many ways you can get involved. In sports, you can coach the activity or practice together with your child. In school, you can volunteer in the class. Or you can get involved in other learning activities such as reading to them every night, helping with school projects, or doing homework exercises together.

Keep in mind that getting involved doesn’t mean controlling. Autonomy is still necessary to motivate your children.

Need More Motivation Help?

If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, my online course Self-motivated Learner 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 in learning.

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

Final Thoughts On Child Motivation

Never giving our kids rewards can be hard. Sometimes, we just want to give our children something to celebrate their success. The key is not using it as a contingency, i.e. if you do this, then you get this. Any extrinsic rewards should be unexpected, offered only after the activity finishes and not routinely given (because then your child will start to expect them). You can also offer praise, positive feedback or improvement suggestions in place of tangible rewards. All of these can motivate your child for future tasks.


References

  1. 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. 2.
    Ryan RM, Connell JP, Plant RW. Emotions in nondirected text learning. Learning and Individual Differences. January 1990:1-17. doi:10.1016/1041-6080(90)90014-8
  3. 3.
    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:10.1037/0022-3514.52.5.890
  4. 4.
    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
  5. 5.
    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.
  6. 6.
    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
  7. 7.
    Grolnick WS, Ryan RM. Parent styles associated with children’s self-regulation and competence in school. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1989:143-154. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.81.2.143
  8. 8.
    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
  9. 9.
    Jeynes WH. The Relationship Between Parental Involvement and Urban Secondary School Student Academic Achievement. Urban Education. January 2007:82-110. doi:10.1177/0042085906293818

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