Ways to Motivate Your Child

Do you usually give your child a reward for getting good grades at school? This is one way to motivate him to achieve a certain objective. But what is the best approach to motivate your child?

Motivation is the process or cause that drives our behaviour and directs our choices. The term ‘motivation’ comes from the Latin word movere, meaning ‘to move’ – it moves us to reach our goals in life. Every parent wants their kids to succeed; a strong motivation is crucial for that purpose.

Intrinsic vs extrinsic

Many theories have been proposed to explain motivation. According to the incentive theory, motivation can be divided into two.

  • Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual, who is driven to gain internal rewards such as satisfaction, excitement or self-improvement. Example: studying a subject because you find it fascinating or solving a puzzle to challenge yourself.

  • Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of the individual and involves external rewards such as good grades, money, prizes or praise. Example: studying because you want good grades or solving a puzzle for a prize.

Intrinsic motivation is often regarded to be more advantageous than extrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated children tend to participate more actively in class and are able to gain a deeper understanding of new topics. Such motivation is also more sustainable, leads to long-term changes, and contributes to better psychological well-being.

Rewards: yes or no?

The different effect of the two motivations has been demonstrated in numerous studies. In one study, a group of preschool children was told they will be rewarded with a nice certificate if they do a drawing activity. Two other groups were given the reward as a surprise after the activity or not given any. The first group was significantly less interested in the activity compared to the two latter groups.

This phenomenon is known as the overjustification effect, whereby offering excessive external rewards can reduce intrinsic motivation if the behaviour itself is already internally rewarding. In the mentioned study, the drawing activity conducted is usually considered fun by children. A “play” activity may feel like “work” when rewards are offered, thus reducing the fun factor.

However, this does not mean extrinsic motivation does not play a role in child development. When implemented strategically, it can encourage children to participate in activities they are not interested in or motivate them to pick up new skills. External rewards can also be used as a feedback to let them know they have performed a task on a level that deserves recognition.

Nurturing intrinsic motivation

This motivation is present as early as infancy, as babies display curiosity toward novel objects and events. You can start nurturing intrinsic motivation from young with these tips.

Stimulate curiosity. One of the hardest things to do as parents is to allow your child to explore and take risks on her own. As long as it is reasonable, let her lead and decide what she wants to do. When your toddler intentionally throws something on the floor or takes something apart, she is actually trying to learn the effect of her actions. It also teaches children that mistakes and failures are important aspects of learning. Curiosity and exploration extend throughout childhood (and should continue into adulthood too!) and can really motivate independent learning.

  • Encourage play. Play inspires learning as it is already innately motivating. Play positively and emotionally enriches any experience. It prompts active participation and reduces stress, which are crucial to maintain one’s motivation.
  • Promote self-determination. When assigning your child a task, give choices whenever possible and be flexible. Let her decide how she wants to do it. She will be more motivated and engaged when she is an active participant, and the task becomes personally meaningful.
  • Break down goals. Smaller goals are easier to achieve, leading to steady successes. This fosters a growth mindset and promotes self-perpetuating intrinsic motivation. Your child will also learn how to work towards their ultimate goal by first setting shorter term goals. This nurtures a healthy work ethic that will go a long way in your child’s life.
  • Praise the process. Praise becomes a verbal reward if you only focus on the end result. But by praising your child’s effort and perseverance, it reaffirms that effort is more important in one’s success than ability or talent alone.

The values nurtured by all these strategies can help your child develop the persistence, grit and courage it takes to achieve what is important to him or her. That is intrinsic motivation.

Nevertheless, this is not saying that extrinsic motivation has no role to play in motivating your child. As your child’s mentor, understand how both types of motivation can affect her behaviour and learn to integrate them to bring out the best in your child. It is important to remember, however, that if she is not achieving certain goals despite her effort, you may need to consult an expert to identify if there is an obstacle, e.g. learning disability or developmental disorder that may need extra support.

An educational contribution by Malaysian Paediatric Association.

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