How Do I Motivate My Child?

Psychologists tell us there are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic (coming from inside) and extrinsic (coming from outside). Extrinsic motivation usually takes the form of rewards or punishments. It works with little kids who sometimes need an incentive to do things they don’t see the value of.

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We need to help our kids move from external motivation to internal motivation.

How do we do this? By letting go. When kids reach an age when they are able to see the consequences of their actions, take a step back. Let them begin to take charge of their own lives. We teach responsibility through freedom and natural consequences.

Many parents get stuck in the time-honored technique of external control known as nagging.

“I have to push him.”
“I’m always ‘on him’ about getting things done.”

This might be good preparation for an assembly line worker or a galley ship rower, but it’s poor preparation for adulthood. Employers want adults who are self-motivated, self-directed and self-regulating. No boss wants someone they have to be ‘on’ all the time.

People become what they are perceived to be. We can instill a negative narrative, “You’re lazy and need to be pushed” or a positive narrative, “You’re a capable, responsible person who knows what needs to be done.”

Things you can say to your child to promote self-directedness:

  • “It’s your choice.”
  • “You decide.”
  • “I trust your judgment.”
  • “Let me know if you need any help.”

Natural consequences are the best teacher. When kids are young, they are not always able to see the consequences of their actions, so we protect them. That’s the way it should be.

But many parents carry on this protective role too long, so kids never learn how to accept responsibility for their own actions and take charge of their own lives. In our attempt to protect our children from negative experiences, we rob them of some of life’s greatest lessons.

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Homework and studying are the two biggest battle grounds where the issue of motivation is played out.

Option 1: Natural consequences. If I don’t do my homework or study, I will fall behind and possibly fail. (Sometimes failing is the necessary prerequisite for learning to take greater responsibility.)

Option 2: Nagging. The child shuts down and turns off. The parent ends up wanting it more than the child does. When we push too hard, the result can be counter-will. “I’m not going to do it because it’s what you want me to do.”

Nagging is rooted in our need for control and fear – fear that my child will fail. When we try too hard to control, our fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to trust our kids and give them loving support. Love sees the best in a child, not the worst. People become what they are perceived to be – capable, responsible, trustworthy.