All children are born with internal motivation, but it often diminishes as kids mature. Here’s what parents can do to preserve and protect their kids’ intrinsic motivation.
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“Mrs. Clemer! Look at the words I wrote. Are they good? Do you like them?”
Johnny, a little boy in my class, looked up at me with eager eyes, craving my approval for the work he’d completed.
“Thank you for showing me. What do you think about your work?” I asked him for probably the fifth time that day, trying hard to stay patient, but mourning the loss of his internal motivation.
In contrast, another little boy in my Montessori class, around the same age, came in every morning for weeks and selected the same counting work off of the shelf. He completed it every day without showing me once until he had mastered the skill, and then moved on to the next challenge.
Each child is born with strong internal motivation. The question is, why do some kids retain it while others don’t? And what can parents do to protect it?
Babies work hard to learn to lift their heads, to roll over, to crawl, and to form sounds. They work toward these skills even though it can be difficult and so frustrating at times that it brings them to tears.
They don’t look to us for motivation. Their own internal drive is utterly unstoppable.
Somewhere along the way, often by kindergarten, this intrinsic motivation disappears in many kids, but it doesn’t have to.
There are several, simple strategies you can use as a parent to help your child keep that great gift of internal motivation he was born with – that motivation to seek and conquer ever greater challenges.
Use encouragement, not praise
Well-meaning adults often hand out the praise “good job” for every single thing a child does, whether it’s putting on his shirt by himself or sharing something with a friend.
Apart from being somewhat hollow, this kind of praise sends a hidden message to children. It tells them that we don’t expect much of them, that we’re impressed when they perform basic acts of kindness or show simple competence.
More importantly, giving children constant praise, by saying “I love your picture!” or “I’m so proud of you!” sends the message that they should be performing to please us.
As children grow, they begin to wonder if they’re letting us down when they don’t get a “good job!” They begin to need our praise to feel good about their accomplishments.
But even if we abandon this common phrase, we can still offer positive reinforcement.
We can encourage children by noticing their effort.
For example, I might say to my son, “Thank you for putting your toys away. You worked hard to clean up that big mess.”
Or I could say to a child in my classroom, “You read that whole book. I can tell you’ve really been practicing.”
Encouraging a child’s effort lets them know we see and appreciate what they’re doing, but it keeps the emphasis on their own process, rather than on producing something to please us.
Avoid external rewards
It can be so tempting to turn to rewards or bribes to get our child to do something.
The problem is, children begin to expect the reward, and even demand it.
I ran into this issue with my son and the stroller.
He’s never been one to love the stroller, which is usually fine now that he can walk and run on his own. But sometimes, when it’s nice out and I’m really tired, it’s easier to put him in the stroller so I can listen to a podcast while we walk.
One day, I told him we were going for a walk and I would give him goldfish crackers after he got in his stroller. It was snack time anyway and I wasn’t really thinking of this as a reward or a bribe, but in truth, that’s exactly what it was.
He happily got in the stroller and we went for our walk. I basked in the sunshine and peacefulness that came with a toddler happily snacking away rather than begging to get out of his stroller.
The problem came the next time I wanted to go for a walk.
My son had just had a snack recently and it was too close to dinner for another one. I knew he wasn’t really hungry, but what did he demand when he saw the stroller? Goldfish.
Offering a child a reward for a desired behavior can easily backfire, as they begin to expect the reward every time. They may do what you want, but they’re also becoming extrinsically motivated.
Furthermore, studies show that offering children rewards for activities they actually want to do, like coloring with markers, decreases the child’s desire to do the activity in the future.
This may be because offering rewards sends the message that an activity is inherently unpleasant, or that the child should not want or have to do it unless there’s something in it for them.
So if praise and rewards don’t work, what can you do to encourage your child’s innate internal motivation?
Children are naturally so curious and want to try new things, but their egos can also be very fragile.
If a child feels like he has failed if he can’t do something the first time, he loses the will to try.
You can help normalize failure both by your direct interactions with your child, and through how you handle setbacks yourself.
When I brought my son home from school today, the first thing someone said to him was “your shorts are on backward”.
It was meant as a harmless comment, but that person didn’t know my toddler has been working very hard to learn to get dressed by himself.
Even little corrections like this can send the message that we don’t think our children are capable – that they’re doing things wrong.
In Montessori classrooms, we hardly ever correct the children’s work. If I see that a child has written words backward, I make a mental note to show him another lesson next time on where to start on the paper, but I don’t tell him it’s wrong.
It’s more important to protect the child’s willingness and desire to try, than to help him get the right answer every time. The learning process is so much more important than the product.
Children also learn how they feel about failure by watching us, and this can be more difficult to control.
While I wish it weren’t the case, I’m personally not comfortable with failure, so I make a conscious effort to try to control my reactions when I do something “wrong”.
If I get lost while driving, which happens more than I’d like to admit, I say out loud, “I missed my turn, but that’s okay. We have all the time we need, we’ll find our way eventually.”
When I drop something, I say “Whoops! I dropped my phone, I’m going to slow down and carry it more carefully.”
Showing our children that we’re okay with making mistakes sends a very important message that it’s okay for them to make mistakes too. And this means it’s okay for them to try.
Set children up for success
One of the secrets of why children in Montessori classrooms are usually so self-motivated is that they are shown work that is just the right level of challenge for their abilities.
Rather than having every student work on the same math problem, the teacher carefully observes each child to see which work will be just right for him or her. If it’s too easy, the child will get bored. If it’s too hard, he’ll get frustrated and give up.
You can use this same idea at home.
If your child is learning to put her shoes on, offer the minimum amount of help for her to be successful. This might mean simply sitting next to her and offering encouragement. It might mean helping her get the shoe over her heel.
If he’s learning to read, try to find a book that’s just a little bit challenging, one that will be interesting and help him grow his skills, but not one that’s so tricky that the experience ends in tears.
Children’s intrinsic motivation thrives when they’re able to develop their skills slowly by practicing things that are just hard enough to help them progress.
Model the learning process
Young children want to do everything we do.
This is really sweet, and can also be a little intimidating.
Try to let your child see you learning something new.
It could be as simple as tackling a new recipe, or something more complicated like learning to play an instrument. Whatever you choose, talk to your child about why you want to learn the new skill.
Tell him you know it will be a lot of work, but it will be so worth it to learn something new.
Let him see you get frustrated, and then keep trying.
To children, it can seem like everything comes too easily to adults. They often don’t see our struggles. Show your child that struggling and persevering are normal parts of the learning process.
Work alongside your child
Most children are highly motivated by a desire to be part of a community.
Children in my classroom will stop what they’re doing and help a friend sweep a big spill. No one asked them to help. They want to help because it feels good to be part of a team effort, to work together toward a common goal.
To spark your child’s intrinsic motivation to help at home, try involving him in everyday life, in the daily work of the household.
Rather than assigning a task like asking him to go clean his room while you clean the kitchen, invite him to help you fold the laundry or cook dinner with you.
Is this the fastest way to get things done? No, definitely not. But it will become a time of bonding rather than a time of nagging and resisting. It will help your child experience the good feelings that come from helping just to be a good family member, rather than to earn money or a sticker on a chart.
Raising internally motivated kids can be difficult. It means we can’t always use the quick fix that will get our child to sit quietly in the grocery cart or leave the park without a fuss. But it’s worth the effort to protect the natural drive that every child is born with – that desire to work hard and master new skills just for learning’s sake.
Christina Clemer is a Montessori teacher for 3-6 year olds, certified by the American Montessori Society. She has a two-year-old son and a baby girl on the way. She lives in Austin, Texas, and writes a blog, Montessoriish Mom, chronicling her journey through motherhood the Montessori way.
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