The best way to get kids to be successful in school and life is to build up intrinsic motivation. This is the drive that comes entirely from the individual, as opposed to outside forces such as parents, grades or status.
If a student works only for the “A”, he’ll never find the joy in learning for its own sake. If a child cleans her room only for the allowance, she will begin to expect money whenever she helps out around the house. The problem, of course, is that it’s a lot easier to threaten to take away a privilege for bad behavior or to reward good behavior. We’re all overworked and overwhelmed, and extrinsic motivators—rewards—get the job done quickly.
Unfortunately, the research suggests that the more we use extrinsic motivators, the less likely we are to build intrinsic motivation in our children.
So what do we do? How do we raise children who are motivated to learn, contribute to our society and considerate of others?
Set parenting goals. Start by thinking about the values, traits and skills you want your child to have as a grown-up. What’s most important to you? Perseverance? Kindness? Empathy? As you create your list, you’ll begin to see what really matters to your family. This is how teachers plan their year. It’s much easier to create learning experiences when you have some goals in mind.
Nurture curiosity. Curious kids love to learn, and kids who are intrinsically motivated are curious. Pay attention to your child. If he begins to express an interest in animals, get him a subscription to a magazine like National Geographic Kids, take him to the zoo or volunteer at an animal shelter. When you plan family activities, try to feed his interests.
Develop relationships. Research suggests that we’re more likely not to require rewards when we feel connected to the people involved in the task. If rooms need to get clean, you might create some family time where that’s what everyone does. Perhaps make a game out of who can find the most items in unusual places (socks under the couch cushions), or blast music and dance your way through. Then, when you’re all finished, you can do something fun together. If social studies is your daughter’s least favorite subject, perhaps set up a regular study date with a good friend and turn memorizing dates into games they play for popcorn.
Build perseverance. Several years ago, Carol Dweck, a renowned Stanford psychologist, conducted research that shifted the way people saw praise and ability. Praising kids for their intelligence didn’t seem to have a positive effect on their performance. In fact, it limited their success because students began to see their intelligence as a piece of luck or happenstance; it wasn’t something in their control. They saw their ability as fixed, rather than as something that could evolve and develop. But when their effort or hard work was recognized, kids believed that their success was in their control. Include opportunities for children to build their perseverance. When you do give praise, praise effort, dedication and hard work.
Strengthen competence. One of the biggest killers of motivation is failure or fear of failure. If a child feels that he is destined to fail, he won’t want to do the task. If he struggles with a subject, then try to find someone to help him—the teacher, a tutor, an older sibling or a relative. Perhaps you and his teacher can work together to break overwhelming tasks into small, manageable chunks so that a series of small successes will lead to one big success at the end. But it’s equally important to find opportunities to teach him to push through moments of frustration to build up his perseverance. Remind him (as you already have) that you are proud of him and love him unconditionally. Remind him of all of the great folks who have failed repeatedly only to succeed spectacularly.
Allow for kid choice. I believe autonomy and independence are the biggest motivators for people. If children feel a sense of independence around their actions and learning, they become intrinsically motivated. When they choose the experience, they have a vested interest in getting something out of it. When they pursue the things that intrigue them, they will necessarily stay motivated to learn and persevere. Most of all, when they feel trusted by the adults in their lives to make these choices, they develop their confidence.
Enjoy. We never want to do something that isn’t fun. Look back over your list of what you value. Create interesting experiences that will foster those particular qualities. Model them with your own behavior. Most of all, dream up fun ways to make this journey to adulthood as loving and enjoyable as possible—for all of you.
Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.