What Does It Take To Raise Internally Motivated Kids?

Today your child doesn’t want to go to school, so you offer them a treat if they go all week without fuss. It might seem like a win-win way to get things moving in the morning and get everyone where they need to be for the day, but rewarding your child just for attending school could have long-term consequences. So what are your options to this and other reward-based activities?

Internal versus external motivation.

It’s not just children, everybody chooses their motivation drive every time a situation is presented. Do I do this because I want to and I’ll feel good about it, or do I do this because I might get something at the end?

While it’s fun and gratifying to get rewards for great work, that desire to do something because it feels great should always be present, reward or none.

Unfortunately, the instant gratification world we live in can make it hard for a child to learn the skill of loving effort and internal drive. When given rewards or praise too easily, they may lose touch with internal satisfaction and perseverance. Without these skills they might not have the ability to apply themselves, pursue their passions or achieve success in years to come.

Why is internal motivation important?

Children develop genuine self-confidence when they earn it, that is, they work hard in a certain area to achieve those results. That area might be sports, academics, crafts or friendships. They believe in themselves and their ability to excel.

As parents and caregivers, we want to encourage our children to see their own worth in what they do. It’s beneficial for them on so many levels because it:

  • Builds self-confidence
  • Builds resilience
  • Teaches a child to reach their full potential
  • Is more satisfying
  • Allows them to feel great about accomplishments even if no one witnessed it
  • Can be applied to any challenge even if it’s not similar
  • Teaches a child how to achieve success later in life
  • Is a lesson in understanding what hard work and application is 

Hard work is worth doing because of the way you feel when it is achieved.

What is a self-motivated child?

Your child has self-motivation when they want to achieve their very best, even if there is no reward offered. When their motivation is internal, giving it their best, putting in effort or having new skills and abilities at the completion of hard work is the real trophy. They will show determination, look for creative ways to overcome challenges, learn from their mistakes and practice to improve. It comes down to an internal feeling of, ‘hey, I did that!’ and, ‘Wow, I really managed to figure that out.’

The opposite of this is external motivation where a prize, or praise is given and replaces genuine hard work.

Giving your child rewards they haven’t earned so they don’t feel left out or disappointed or so they will do what you want them to do has compounding effects.

  1. They have no motivation to strive for genuine rewards and get earned results.
  2. They don’t understand or appreciate the hard work that goes into success so they may not understand why it is alluding them. Lack of success or happiness may be put it down to, ‘I’m not lucky enough’ or ‘I’m not naturally talented’.
  3. They won’t look to see how amazing they are. Knowing that you are capable and can achieve something with work and effort builds confidence and allows your child to grow their own happiness.

By encouraging your child to be reflective and take ownership for their work you allow them to experience the challenges and rewards of the real world.

As they practice internal motivation they develop good habits and passionate attitudes around work so that they are empowered to build a life they love.

By helping them to avoid feelings of disappointment or regret by giving awards out freely, our children do not get to learn about these emotions, how to handle them effectively and what to do to get to the other side of them.  So many children are not used to having to work very hard and so they get discouraged when a challenge seems too hard.

Do I need to push my children?

There is no need to ridicule your child in order for them to see their flaws and places where they can improve. Rather than looking for imperfections it’s about identifying the best results, especially during those times when they apply effort and diligence. Highlight times you see them working hard and encourage them to notice their feelings around their effort and the results. Ask them questions about their work that will help them acknowledge their power and find pride in their achievement.

If your child doesn’t want to do something, sit with them and understand why. Together you can decide what to do or find a way to love going to school or doing homework or anything they are reluctant about. The most important thing to encourage is a love for what they do. How can they do what they are doing with pride, passion and joy? If it’s your passion they are pursuing and not their own? Help them discover what they love and encourage them to follow their own dreams.

Of course you can praise your child but it needs to be relative to their effort, not just to make them feel better and give them a boost. Giving out praise to elevate your child’s mood won’t help them build self-confidence or reach beyond what’s directly in front of them.  The work itself needs to be satisfying.

Consequences can arise from easy reward giving that if no reward is on offer or the task seems too difficult the child will quit, become easily discouraged or be angry or disappointed in the outcome.

What to do to help encourage internal motivation in children 

  • Unconditional love.

Tell your child you love them. There is security and comfort for them knowing they don’t have to win your love through certain activities and behaviours.

  • Responsibility

Show your kids that you trust them to take responsibility around the house.  Cooking, baking, cleaning, shopping, feeding and grooming pets, folding clothes, doing the dishes, making the bed and setting the table are all examples of jobs they can do and get better at as they learn new skills. This helps with internal motivation as they can see their progress and feel good about their contribution.

  • A spoon full of sugar (metaphorically).

Make work fun, especially if your child is getting frustrated with their lack of progress. Find ways to broaden the picture for them. For example, if doing math homework is challenging, see if you can use a bunch or grapes as a counting tool. Find ways to make the work interesting and a game, that way they will learn to love hard work and find their way through a challenge when things get difficult.

  • Earned rewards.

Internal motivation doesn’t mean a child never gets rewarded. Be sure to congratulate your child when they receive a reward for sport, academics or crafts when they deserve them. It’s important to only give the reward when an advanced level of work is done. Be selective and ensure that the reward doesn’t outshine the feelings of personal pride.

  • Bring it back to their work.

Avoid praising your child for being clever, skilled or talented, these things are natural and hard to replicate. Instead look for ways to praise them on effort, work, care, attention and perseverance, these things they can easily repeat, or transfer to other activities if they want to achieve the same results in the future. It’s also about them and how they feel, not about you feeling proud or happy when their achieve an outcome.

  • Let them get unstuck themselves.

Internal motivation will take some time and practice, which is perfect. If your child becomes stuck in disappointment or frustration because things are not happening instantly or easily, sit and listen to their feelings. To begin with your can help them brainstorm ways to stay motivated and connected to how they will feel when they complete their task. As they get more experienced with perseverance let them find their own solutions but be on hand to hear their feelings and ask open-ended questions to help encourage them to find a way forward and keep at it.

Using rewards for motivation or handing awards out without evidence of effort can cause children to become dependent on rewards to do anything, which is not going to give them a feeling of internal satisfaction or have them learn how to work hard to achieve a goal.

As parents and caregivers, we want to teach our kids how to become internally motivated so that they enjoy the feeling of achieving what they set out to do. When they can show determination and persistence for learning new skills or mastering a challenge they have the ability to achieve any success they want in life.

Parenting is about teaching your kids how to do it for themselves, even though that might not be the easiest or most comfortable way, it’s important to resist jumping in and rescuing them, with rewards, praise or treats. Support them through their struggles so they have that “burst in your chest” feeling from achieving something that doesn’t come easily.

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