How to motivate your child

Mar 22, 20225 minutes read time

Reviewed by: Professor Mark Dadds and Dr Lucy Tully

Key points:

  • Every parent struggles to motivate their kids at times, without always resorting to lollies or screen time as rewards for good behavior.
  • It’s important to know the difference between external motivators and internal motivators – and learn what your child is intrinsically motivated by.
  • There are 9 practical steps you can take to increase your child’s intrinsic motivation and rely less on external motivators.

Let’s be real. Most parents have fallen back on candy or screen time as motivation to get our kids to clear their plates or finish homework. (No judgment here!)

But most of us also know there’s a law of diminishing returns when it comes to these motivational tactics. At some point, more treats (or more screen time) does not equal more angelic behavior. So what are some better (and longer lasting) ways to motivate a child?

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Internal vs. external motivation: knowing the difference (and why it matters)

When it comes to motivation, every child is different. Some respond to internal motivators. Others sometimes need an outside nudge – and incentive or reward.

  • Internal (or intrinsic) motivation is when you do something for its own sake. You don’t need an incentive; finishing the task is reward enough. For example, when your child finishes a book because they got caught up in the story.
  • External (or extrinsic) motivation is when your reason for doing something is separate from the task itself. For example, if your child finishes their Brussels sprouts, but only to get dessert after.

It’s important to notice what motivates your child. But don’t rely too heavily on external motivators – too much can actually diminish a child’s internal motivation over time. (We’ll share sometimes for appealing to your child’s intrinsic motivation below.

Relying mainly on internal motivators does not mean you should hold back on positive reinforcement. Unlike incentives such as screen time, praise and encouragement fuel your child’s internal motivation. As Laura Phillips, a neuropsychologist with the Child Mind Institute says, “Kids respond really well to social reinforcers like praises, hugs, high fives, and those kinds of things. Then they start to achieve because it feels good for them.”

Be as specific as possible when giving praise. Some examples:

  • ‘I’m proud of how hard you worked on this.’
  • ‘Great job staying focused until you got it done!’
  • ‘You finished all on your own – look at you!’
  • ‘I was so impressed you kept going when it got hard.’
Dad motivating his son to practice his writing

Encourage your child’s curiosity

Kids are born eager to explore the world. Encouraging that curiosity is a powerful way to nurture their internal motivation.

Make sure your kids get plenty of opportunities to play and explore. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, play is inherently motivating for children of all ages, because it’s how they learn and form bonds with others.

It’s also important to pay attention to your child. Watch for what gets their motor revving. (A sure sign is when they start talking a mile a minute.) Show an interest in the things that interest them.

9 ways to motivate your child

Getting your child to stay on task can be hard, especially when it feels like they only respond to external motivation. Here are nine strategies to grow your child’s internal motivation instead.

  1. Set goals. Many kids love the sense of accomplishment when they hit a goal. The key is to set achievable goals. Too easy or too difficult, and it could dampen your child’s motivation. Set goals with their ability in mind, and gradually increase the challenge along the way.
  2. Inspire your kids the right way. No, it’s not time to break out that big motivational speech you’ve been working on. This is about showing your kids the natural joy or excitement there is in doing something.
    One way to do this: focus less on the immediate result – that is, some reward they hope to get – and more on the bigger picture. Maybe it’s a new skill or knowledge they’ll gain that they can use for other things too.
    Ok, but what about motivating your child when it’s something they genuinely do not want to do? It’s even more important to help them see the bigger payoff:
    ● If they struggle with reading, show them how learning to read will unlock a world of opportunity for them. ● When learning an instrument, practicing scales can be as exciting as watching paint dry. In a windowless room. But it’s an essential foundation that will help them play like a star someday.
  3. Keep it positive. Easier said than done when your child flops to the floor in a fit of frustration. When this happens, try to keep your own frustration in check. Acknowledge theirs but keep things positive and affirming.
    Above all, reassure your child that you believe in them, and that you know what they’re capable of.
  4. Give your child a say.Self-determination is one of the most powerful motivators for a child.
    Kids crave autonomy, especially as they get older. Giving them options may be the key to unlock their motivation. For example:
    - If they have more than one task, let them choose which to do first. - If there’s more than one right way to finish, let them decide how to get it done.
  5. Move the goalposts (in a good way!). As we noted before, it’s best if you can tap into your child’s internal motivation instead of relying on external motivators.
    The ‘carrot’ of good grades might get them to finish their homework. But that’s external motivation. Chances are, it’ll wear off before long.
    Encourage them to study to satisfy their natural curiosity, gain a useful skill, or learn something new about the world. These internal motivators will take your child farther than all the external motivation in the world.
  6. Set expectations for non-negotiables.Some tasks just have to be done, regardless of motivation – like getting ready for school or doing homework.
    Set clear expectations, but remember: your child won’t know what’s expected of them unless you tell them. Communicate patiently but clearly. Most of all, stick to those expectations.
  7. Focus on the process more than the result.Celebrate the effort your child puts in, even when it comes up short. Too much focus on outcomes can be demotivating – even when they get the desired outcome. According to the experts at the Center on the Developing Child:When we praise children for their intellect or skill level—or the grade or gold medal they received—it can lead to a performance orientation. They may be motivated to achieve more rewards, but they may also learn to shy away from challenging activities that they might not excel at, for fear of negative evaluation.
  8. Normalize failure. Prioritizing effort over outcome does not mean outcome doesn’t matter. It means accepting failure as one valid potential outcome.
    Punishing failure will not motivate a child. It only teaches them to stop trying. Next time your child bombs a test or doesn’t make the team, teach them that failure is a normal, acceptable part of life.
    One of the ways you do this is by taking the sting out of the word failure itself. Don’t soft pedal by calling it something else. If we’re allergic to the word failure, it teaches our kids that failure is something to be feared.
    You might talk about what your child could do differently next time, or what they’ve learned from the experience. But keep the conversation free of shame.
    Of course, if your child failed because they refused to do something – for example, their homework – it’s ok to let them experience the natural consequences of failure.
  9. Keep the parent-child bond strong.The most powerful resources for motivating your child? You. When you and your mini-me are tight, they’re more responsive to you.
    One caveat: be clear with your child that your bond is unbreakable. It should never be conditioned on their success or failure.
    The best way to keep your bond tight? That brings us back to where we started: be responsive. Show interest in things that make them come alive. Invest time in exploring, playing games, and reading together. Your bond will be stronger than ever.
Dad motivating his son to go for a swim at the beach

What about motivating a child when the task is hard?

Kids – especially younger ones – generally do best with smaller, achievable tasks. So what do you do when they have something bigger on their plate? Here are a few quick tips:

  1. Try to break the big task into smaller parts, if possible.
  2. Have them work on it for short periods of time. Give them a chance to step away and come back.
  3. Give them plenty of time to complete the task if possible.

Motivating a child is not always easy. But by paying attention to what excites them, by keeping your bond strong, and setting the right targets for them, you can help your kids stay on task and become more independent as they grow.

Want to nail child discipline? The best go to strategies are covered in Family Man.

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