The harsh reality is that not all motivations are created equal. Many parenting techniques, such as rules, punishment, and rewards, fail because they produce the wrong kind of drive. Learning how to motivate kids by following these seven research-backed methods.
Read Time: 10 min
What Kind Of Motivation Does Your Child Possess?
Motivation one of the key driving forces behind children’s actions. There are two types of motivation in psychology: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because you love it or have a true interest.
Extrinsic motivation is defined as doing something for a reason other than enjoyment, like a reward.
Although both intrinsic and extrinsic motives can lead to identical behaviors, there are distinctions in the quality and long-term duration of the activity.
According to studies, when people engage in an activity because they are intrinsically motivated, the quality of engagement and the outcomes are both better 1. Researchers at the University of Rochester asked a group of undergraduate students to read an article and then write down their feelings as they read it. They examined the student’s ability to recall what they read a week later. Students who considered the article engaging and interesting performed better in retaining and comprehending the information than those who did not. 2
What Motivates And Discourages Your Child?
So, what drives your child’s motivation?
Many parents employ the “carrot and stick” strategy to motivate their children, which includes rules, punishments, rewards, or behavior charts. Many people have quick success at first, but after a while, it stops functioning. Worse, it can sometimes backfire. Here’s why…
Extrinsic incentive is used when kids respond to the “carrot and stick” method. We’ve already observed that the quality of conduct resulting from extrinsic motivation is inferior to what comes from intrinsic motivation.
Furthermore, you must continue to use the “carrot and stick” to maintain the desired behavior. That cannot be sustained in the long run. However, there is a third reason…
Using a carrot and a stick to motivate your child lowers his or her innate motivation, if there is any at all. A person’s inherent drive is reduced when a reward (such as ice cream or a video game) or a regulating element (such as punishment or privilege loss) is applied. 1 In other words, if your child first showed some interest in an activity, your carrot-and-stick “motivation” demotivates them, because now it’s not about them or their interest, it’s about an external object or factor.
To be intrinsically motivated, one must appreciate an activity only for its own sake. External praise, rewards, or punishment will not motivate someone to become naturally interested in the activity. It has the exact opposite effect.
So are our hands tied and we have no recourse to help with the motivation for kids? Not at all. There are many things we can do to help our kids achieve their goals (more on that later).
How to Make Extrinsic Motivation Work for You
We have to work with your child’s extrinsic motivation if he or she isn’t intrinsically motivated.
Extrinsic motives aren’t all terrible. Extrinsic motivation can be divided into four categories. They are on a continuum of being able to do things on their own, ranging from the least independent (externally governed) to the most autonomous (internally regulated) (integrated). Integrated motivation is the most ideal of these four drives.
When people have fully identified what they want, they achieve integrated motivation. So, what exactly does that mean? That a person has analyzed the reason to do something and found it to align with their own values and needs, i.e. the cause has been internalized and self-drive has been developed. They become confident in their actions and drive and act independently, resulting in better results.
Because integrated motivation shares many characteristics with intrinsic drive, it’s critical to connect with your kids to be able to assist them to figure out their “why” and then figure out what it’s going to take to achieve what they want so that it becomes integrated, and they are more assured of being able to act independently to accomplish what they set out to do.
7 Science-Backed Steps On How to Motivate Kids
#1. DON’T ATTEMPT TO MOTIVATE THE TRADITIONAL WAY
For many parents, the attempts to motivate their kids are most likely demotivating them.
To be intrinsically motivated, an activity must be enjoyable on its own in the opinion of the child. If someone does not appreciate an activity, no amount of persuasion, bribery, or threats will persuade them to enjoy it for its own sake.
As a result, typical methods of motivating kids, such as rewarding, praising, nagging, scolding, and punishing, are ineffective.
#2. INSTEAD OF CONTROLLING, BE INSPIRING
Controlling someone’s behavior can be done through rewarding, praising, nagging, scolding, or punishing them. When a parent applies pressure or offers a reward that is apart from the action, that is controlling the child. Controlling takes away the opportunity for the child to discover or realize that they may actually enjoy doing the task at hand without external distractions.
Being independent is the exact opposite of being controlled. It entails taking charge of one’s own actions. Being self-sufficient and self-confident is important for intrinsic or integrated motivation. According to research, a sense of autonomy can boost a person’s intrinsic motivation. This also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the more that kids do on their own, the more self-confident they become.
Students, for example, show a higher quality of learning, better conceptual understanding, and longer retention when they are not under pressure to learn. Students’ intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, lowers when they feel controlled or that they are studying for a cause other than enjoying the learning process or knowing that it will benefit them in the long run.
So, if you want to properly drive your child to do well in school, be sure your goal is to inspire rather than to manage. The easiest method to motivate your child is to demonstrate the beauty of an activity and how much fun it can be.
Just a quick note – we also wrote on how to motivate teens specifically. Motivating teens is intensely different than motivating younger children, so if you’re having some obstacles in connecting with your teen kid – check out our detailed article!
Show your kids that mastering a new skill is fun and makes you feel good about yourself. Create a learning environment rather than a work setting, in which we learn to attain new knowledge rather than just to finish assignments or achieve good grades.
Show them how to use the new information that they just learned to continue to pique their interest in learning. Allow them to choose activities based on the child’s interests without putting any pressure on them.
Support children by giving them positive and constructive feedback rather than criticism, which can help them feel more competent.
When your child is stuck on a subject, encourage them to see it as a “challenge they can solve,” not a “difficulty they must overcome.” Celebrate the effort of their accomplishments (but do not over-praise or praise conditionally).
#3. HELP KIDS UNDERSTAND THAT SOMETIMES YOU JUST NEED TO GET THINGS DONE.
Sometimes we just have to do things that we don’t really want to do. Some people enjoy doing the laundry or the dishes. I am not one of those people, but these things have to be done. If you have examples like this in your household, you can still help the kids understand that there is a way to motivate yourself. Help them see why an activity is necessary and that can help children understand its meaning and value.
Soccer practice, for example, can be hard at times. However, practicing is an important part of getting better. Explain so that your child understands that if they want to be good at soccer, they must practice even if it isn’t always fun. Then the better they get, the more they will play and the more fun they will have.
#4. HELP THEM IN DECIDING AND THEN LET THEM DECIDE.
When it comes to developing internal motivation or incorporating extrinsic incentive, autonomy is essential. Because self-determination is one of the most significant intrinsic motivators, children must be free to make their own decisions in order to feel autonomous. 4 Most parents are concerned that allowing their children to make their own decisions may lead to them making poor choices and failure. However, just as falling is an unavoidable part of learning to walk, making bad decisions is an unavoidable and crucial part of learning to make excellent ones. To acquire self-confidence, children also need to practice making decisions. Allow them to make choices about what they want to do, if the activity is not health or safety-related, and then let them deal with the natural consequences. You are there for guidance if they want it. I have also learned that advice giving is the quickest way to shut down a conversation because there is an expectation that the advice will be taken and that is the ONLY way. Story telling, idea and experience sharing generates conversation and it is more engaging for someone to see different perspectives.
If a child refuses to do his homework despite being told how important it is, let him face the consequences at school.
However, there are some things that we believe children must do, but they do not, like go to school. If a child refuses to go, try to figure out why. As we think about the “shoulds” that we think about for our kids, it’s a good time to ask ourselves, “why do I think that they should be doing that, especially in the cases where our kids are miserable when it comes time to doing the “thing”. Is this something that I had to do as a kid and so I think that my kid should do it too? Just because we wish we had learned to play the piano when we were younger doesn’t mean our children must follow in our footsteps. Children have their own lives to live and their own goals to achieve. Another example that comes up all the time is around sports. Maybe you were an all-star in some sport and think that you child will be or should be too, but they really don’t like it all. There is no intrinsic motivation and the external motivators are a waste of time, energy and potentially money.
#5. LOOK FOR AN IDEAL CHALLENGE
Helping our kids feel competent is one of the most effective methods to promote intrinsic motivation. A child will easily become bored if an activity is too simple. However, if an activity is too difficult, a kid will become discouraged or self-conscious and lose interest as well.
An ideal challenge is one that is slightly more difficult than what a child has already learned, but that can still be accomplished with effort and persistence.
It is also critical to assist children in developing a growth mindset. When children believe that “talent” can be changed with effort and practice and that making mistakes or failure are not bad at all, they acquire a growth mentality.
Help them see that practice and hard work can help develop skills and mastery. Let them know that it’s the practice and problem-solving process that counts. It’s important for them to realize that mistakes are opportunities to try again in a different way.
Encourage and assist your child in practicing is a great way to connect with them and watch them grow. When they master a new skill, their sense of accomplishment will generate self-confidence, good energy and serve as a powerful internal motivator, putting them on the road to success.
#6. AUTHORITATIVE PARENTING PROMOTES RELATEDNESS
As we reflect on the situations where we have had to use extrinsic motivation in the past, we can see that the activity is not something that the child would have gravitated to on their own. They do it because someone that they look up to and have a connection with appreciated them doing whatever the activity was. By participating in whatever the activity was, it gave the child a sense of belonging and a sense of relatedness.5 Individuals’ emotional and personal relationships are referred to as relatedness. This means that children are more likely to internalize a cause that is important to someone with whom they have a strong bond.
Because of its importance in students’ performance, the importance of relatedness has been extensively explored in education. Students are more organically driven to study in the classroom when they feel appreciated and cared for by the teacher. 6
The importance of parental relationships in children’s motivation is also incredibly important. At home, stable and satisfying connections between parents and their children provide relatedness. It should come as no surprise that when you have a strong connection with your child, they are far more likely to listen to you.
So, how can you form a strong bond with your child?
According to studies, parents that use an authoritative parenting style have a stronger bond with their children. Parents who are kind and receptive to their children’s needs are described as such. They also have high expectations of their children and set restrictions for them.
According to psychologists, authoritative parents can boost their children’s self-regulation and motivation in the school by creating an autonomy-supportive environment. Parents who emphasize autonomy in their children live in an autonomy-supportive atmosphere. They encourage children to select and participate in problem-solving activities.
Besides authoritative style, there are several more parenting styles you should know about. We’ve covered this topic in detail in one of our previous articles, so feel free to take a look and soak up more knowledge on parenting!
Another strategy to enhance connection and relatedness is for parents to participate in an activity with the child. The level of parental involvement in their children’s learning is one of the most accurate indicators of their school performance. You can be involved in a variety of ways. Sit with the child and do math problems with them. Read together. Play video games and sports together. When there is commonality in activities that you do together as a family, you are more relatable and able to understand struggles and successes.
Keep in mind that involvement does not imply control. To encourage your children, autonomy is still required.
Understanding how to motivate kids becomes simple and stress-free once you understand this science-based method.
The Connection Parenting Guide gives parents the tools and ideas to motivate and transform their families.
(100% Online & Science Based)
Last Words on Motivation for Kids
It can be difficult not to give our children prizes or rewards. Sometimes all we want to do is give them something to commemorate their achievements. The key is to avoid utilizing it as a backup plan, i.e. if you do this, you’ll get this. Rewards should be unexpected, given only when the action is completed, and not supplied on a regular basis (because then your child will start to expect them). Instead of rewards, you can offer praise for the effort that they put in to their activity, offer specific and constructive feedback, and recognize and commend them for how they overcame setbacks, struggles and obstacles. All of these things can help your child stay motivated for future assignments.
With all the techniques and strategies, you learn in the Connection Parenting Guide, you will be able to connect with your kids, you will be able to talk with them to learn about what motivates them and what doesn’t so that you can work together to help your kids achieve what they want to do and also what needs to be done.
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. 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. 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
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. 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. 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. 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
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. Jeynes WH. The Relationship Between Parental Involvement and Urban Secondary School Student Academic Achievement. Urban Education. January 2007:82-110. doi:10.1177/0042085906293818