https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/the-perils-and-promises-of-praise-summer-2008It can be really tempting to use short-term solutions to motivate children, especially when faced with an immediate problem. Persuading them to take medicine, leave the house, join an activity or tidy their room can end up with us falling back on traditional approaches of rewards, praise, nagging or punishing. 

We might reason or plead with them or promise a treat. Maybe we praise them every time they manage a mouthful of dinner or answer a homework question or warn them of a consequence if they don’t. 

But how well do these strategies help your child and their motivation long term?

What motivates your child?

Children start off life deeply motivated to learn. They begin with a growth mindset. This term, coined by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, describes a positive belief around beginning and mastering new learning and skills, and sticking with a task, even when it feels hard. 

We often see young children creatively finding ways to achieve a goal when what they’ve tried so far hasn’t worked. This is why a typically developing child will learn to walk, talk, and learn all manner of really complex skills even though it takes time and many setbacks along the way. 

Although some children might show more determination than others, most don’t doubt that what they want to do is possible. At a young age, kids don’t blame themselves when they can’t do something.  

External motivators decrease motivation

And yet, as they grow, we often perceive children as lacking in motivation. 

Usually it’s because we really want them to do something and they’re not doing it. Or they say they want to achieve something but stop trying. Their focus drifts from one thing to another, and they lose interest and concentration easily.

We might feel tempted at this point to promise a treat or create a reward chart to encourage our children to complete tasks. But these external motivators have been found to have limited success and can even have the opposite effect, decreasing the intrinsic motivation our children already have. 

Alfie Kohn shares compelling research which suggests that using external rewards stores up problems for the future. Still, these methods remain tempting because they feel like a quick solution in gaining our children’s cooperation. What can we do instead?

Your feelings about motivation matter

Issues around motivation start early. When a child who is able to feed themselves begs to be helped, for example, or a child who could easily put toys on a shelf complains and says they can’t. 

As parents, we meet these moments consumed with our feelings about what might be happening. Think of a time when your child wanted you to dress them or carry their bag. What feelings do you have about yourself as a parent and where the limit lies? Have these questions run through your head?

  • Am I right or wrong to hold a limit about this?
  • Is it too hard?
  • Am I being too strict? 
  • What if they never become independent? 
  • Are they really too little, tired or weak? 
  • Am I being mean to say no? 
  • Should I help them this one time?

These are good questions, and helpful to answer, although they can fog our mind in the moment, leading us to uncertainty. 

We might also step into comparisons, asking ourselves why other kids seem enthusiastic and willing when ours is not? We may blame ourselves, wondering why we can’t inspire or encourage the child to try. 

We may view a child negatively, as our own inner critic tells us “They don’t do anything! They’re lazy! They’re so difficult.”

We may feel stuck in a cycle or begging, pleading, encouraging, rewarding and even bribing our child to do something, even simply daily necessities, like putting on shoes or going outside. 

When working with motivation, it’s as important to address our feelings as it is to work on the issue with the child because they can muddy our thinking and drain our energy. When this happens, we do tend to reach for what seems like an easy fix or short-term solution, even when we know it is not effective long-term. 

When is your child motivated?

A good way to begin to address this is to simply notice times when your child has high levels of motivation. Look out for moments when they:

  • enjoy an activity;
  • feel deeply interested in learning to do something;
  • show a strong desire to show they’re capable of managing a task or skill, however small it seems;
  • realise they’ll have more fun when they’ve mastered the skill;
  • feel competent and capable of taking on just the right amount of challenge to make it interesting without it being overwhelming;
  • persevere when things get tough;
  • have someone they trust supporting them and believing in them and feel motivated to do more or try something new;
  • tolerate frustration when things don’t go to plan.

When motivation is high, things feel less impossible.

Allow time for them to try, and to feel frustration, upset and failure. 

By the time parents look for support to motivate their child, it’s often because there’s an issue related to schoolwork, sports or other hobbies, but we can begin working on motivation way ahead of these big conflicts by allowing lots of time and space to work on struggle and accomplishment early on. 

I remember when my child was a tiny tot, able to walk but not quite talking in full sentences yet. We spent a sunny day in the park and, after some play and connection, he started walking across the grass to the swings. He was very motivated to get there and able to walk that distance but he suddenly paused and reached out to be carried. 

I paused with him and said, “I think you can walk by yourself.” 

Many times when this had happened before, he would decide to walk. At other times, he would protest more and then I would carry him. On this day, we had plenty of time and I knew it would be fine to pause and let him learn a little about what he was capable of doing. 

He protested more loudly and then started to cry. I crouched down by his side and said, “It’s a long way to walk. I know you can do it. I’m right here with you.” 

He cried loudly and long and I stayed with him, listening with my full, warm attention. He wasn’t old enough to be able to express his feelings verbally – maybe he felt a little tired or discouraged –  but I knew he had the option to rest whenever he needed to and it felt like a good moment to work on those feelings for us both. 

This process, of warmly listening to a child’s upset without fixing, judging or shutting them down is what we call