How to develop inner motivation in kids

OCTOBER 27, 2022

From being a quiet, observant and friendless second-grader in hybrid classes during the pandemic season, my daughter Juno blossomed into an achiever well-liked by her teachers, classmates and coaches by third grade. She got straight As, was elected vice president of her class and earned a spot on the badminton varsity team. She even ran for a post in the student council.

Out of four candidates, all of whom were boys, Juno was selected to be part of a political party. She learned to put together her platform, navigate the world of public speaking, and be part of a team.

In the end, after much effort, Juno lost. We had practiced scenarios at home, win or lose, so that she could be emotionally prepared for any outcome. When Juno came home from school, I was gauging how she was. I was ready to redirect her disappointment into an alternative we considered. Fortunately, she took the loss in stride and was even appointed as the council’s social action level contact. She said, “This means I can still run for class president next year!”

Nature or nurture?

I continue to be amazed at her drive, motivation and engagement whatever the task, whether in school or in life. I wondered: is it nature or nurture?

William Stixrud, Ph.D., coauthor of “The Self-Driven Child,” postulated that such behavior is based on self-determination theory. This intrinsic motivation is where you’re doing something because you enjoy it or it’s important to you or you just like developing yourself, as opposed to someone else trying to make you do it.

In a Bright & Quirky online parenting summit, Stixrud discussed what helps children be interested in investing in themselves. He said that intrinsic motivation requires having three psychological needs met: a sense of relatedness, competence and autonomy. A sense of relatedness is when you work harder for your parents or teachers because you have a good relationship with them. A sense of competence and autonomy is crucial for developing that internal, healthy drive because you have something meaningful to offer this world.

He mentioned studies that show how video games satisfy that need for connection when kids play with others; they also get a sense of competence and autonomy because no one’s making them do it. “It’s something they’re choosing to do. They don’t know they’re actually manipulated in many ways. But what happens is, when people get older, they realize, ‘this is my life,’” he said.

Trusting relationship

If children have a trusting relationship with their parents, Stixrud said that usually, parents can influence them earlier. He told a story about a 17-year-old girl who flunked all her classes in the first semester of tenth grade.

She was smart and competent, so her mother couldn’t understand why she failed. After he spoke with the teen, the girl started working harder. After two weeks, she told her mom to take her phone at night. Previously, it was inseparable from her. “We can influence kids to get there faster, to see this in their own best interest, to have a healthy relationship with technology,” said Stixrud. What changed? “I see many kids who are significant underachievers in high school because they grew up with the delusion that the most important outcome of life is where you go to college and you gotta get really good grades or you’re blowing your whole future,” he said. He assured the teen that even if she failed every class and then decided she wanted to go to college, she just needed to get 30 credits at community college then she could apply to almost any college that wouldn’t need to see her high school transcript—she hadn’t messed up her entire life.

Stixrud said that children need to know that even if they’re in a bad place right now, there’s a way for them to get better and create a life. He said the mother (who also happened to be a therapist) spent her interactions with her daughter trying to get her to “do stuff.” But as kids get to high school, parents need to be thinking of themselves as a consultant to their children instead of their boss or manager.

“Your job is to help your kid figure out her life, who she wants to be, what kind of life she wants and how to create it,” he said. “I encouraged the mom to simply change the energy and let the kid know ‘I can’t force you to do anything, but I have confidence that you can figure this out. I think you’re incredible.’ The mom changing her energy was part of what helped the child change, too.” —Contributed


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