PARENT EDUCATION: How Do I Motivate My Child?

Young unmotivated child looking down at his notebook
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By Kaelin Clogan, Clinical Inern

Child motivation, or lack thereof, typically underlines behavior. It is what drives a child to run for that soccer ball, to score the goal or even causes them to stop cleaning the playroom halfway through.

It can be puzzling trying to figure out how to motivate children to finish their homework or to keep trying something they don’t pick up on right away. As a parent, it can feel daunting trying to see what works for your child and how you might instill motivation.

First, it is helpful to define the two different types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

  • Extrinsic motivation comes from external factors such as a reward or praise from a parent.
  • Intrinsic motivation comes from internal factors such as personal pride in the activity or personal satisfaction.

Although both types of motivation may have the same result, the method and long-term outcome tend to differ quite a bit. When a child participates in an activity with intrinsic motivation, they are doing it for the reward that the satisfaction of the activity itself will give them. Thus, they are more likely to have a higher level of engagement and a better outcome.

When the child participates in an activity with a level of extrinsic motivation (such as a trophy, treat or avoidance of punishment), they are less likely to choose to do the activity on their own. They also will likely have a lower level of satisfaction.

As a parent, you want your child to be more intrinsically motivated, so they feel more satisfied in life and do not constantly look for extrinsic validation. Although this may be the goal, it is difficult to instill.

Rewards and behavior charts are much more concrete and easier to implement. But while these methods may work at first with a great response from your child, eventually motivation will wear off. This potentially may diminish any intrinsic motivation they had in the first place. Any initial intrinsic motivation shown by the child to complete a task will likely be overtaken by the desire for extrinsic motivation in the form of a reward or praise. Eventually, mom and dad will get sick of the constant need for a reward and the unwanted behavior returns. Suddenly you feel as if you are in an endless cycle of trying to shape your child’s behavior. You may become tired and frustrated that it stops working and wondering where you went wrong.

Is It Bad to Reward My Child?

Not necessarily! Extrinsic motivators have a place to be effective as well. Rewards for desired behaviors are useful when attempting to help your child accomplish a difficult task or a task they struggle completing. For example, grades are an external reward to work hard in school. Although the hope is students gain interest in the subject and desire to learn more, the grading system motivates them to complete their work to receive the knowledge needed to excel in life after school.

To motivate a child to do their chores, a parent might offer an allowance. This will spark an initial interest in the activity and can motivate them to work hard to accomplish the task. Children with lower self-esteem may also need extrinsic motivation from a parent or guardian to encourage them to continue trying as they build confidence.

When Should I Praise My Child?

Parents tend to overdo praise without realizing how it may affect their child’s development. A common praise tactic for children is the use of value statements which provide validation after performing a certain task. For example, we are quick to say short phrases such as “Good job!” “Way to go!” or “amazing work!” Praise comes from a place of wanting to reinforce a desired behavior in hopes that it will encourage more of the same behavior.

There are a few reasons to change the language we use when trying to encourage our children.

  • Praise decreases the likelihood of them repeating this action.

    Studies show children who are praised for trying something new or for being generous are less likely to repeat those actions than those who were not praised. This praise statement is now associated with the behavior. It can also be perceived as telling the child they are somehow inherently unable to be generous or try new things. The behavior will now not occur without the guarantee of being praised.

    So, when a parent or motivator is not observing, the desired behavior is less likely to occur because the promise of praise diminishes. Instead, try to not praise your child upon every completed task. Treat their behavior as something they just do instead of a phenomenon that needs to be congratulated.
  • Praise creates a pressure of performance.

    The impact of performance pressure is prevalent amongst adolescents right now. When we praise children for a behavior, we attach a pressure to it. And repeated praise can cause that pressure to internalize, making them feel unsatisfied and inadequate if they do not receive praise each time. The accumulation of only performing a behavior for praise could strip the child of the joy they may have once had in doing the activity.

    The COVID-19 pandemic only makes matters worse because typical performance is impossible. Adolescents cannot meet pressures applied to popular in-person activities.
  • Praise implies love is conditional.

    When a child is praised because of a specific achievement, it may be perceived as “I love you because…” For example, the child understands it as: “I love you because you share” or “I love you because you drew a beautiful flower.”

    Although parents are attempting to convey “I love you regardless,” linking praise to achievements tells a different story. If mom and dad only show excitement when the child colors in the lines or when they receive good grades, they are ensuring the child will feel loved only in instances where behavior leads to praise.
  • Praise can be inauthentic and unspecific.

    Simply responding with “good job” to a behavior does not convey to the child what the desired behavior is specifically. Therefore, they do not know exactly what behavior they need to replicate in order to get that same outcome.

    Instead, the recognition of effort and process encourages free thinking and the perseverance to seek out new challenges as they learn efforts matter more than outcomes. Being specific in our praises and communication aides the child in processing the activity and finding enjoyment and accomplishment in the process.

What Should I Say to Motivate My Child?

Removing praise phrases feels like a difficult feat. Society today puts an emphasis on building self-esteem, which is often linked with praise. The goal instead is to build intrinsic motivation, which has an outcome of greater overall well-being and life satisfaction. Here are a few suggestions of what language to use:

  • Use effort-focused language.

    Instead of saying, “Wow! What a beautiful drawing you made,” an alternative could be, “You worked really hard on that drawing.” More simply, “You drew a flower.” By highlighting the effort put into the activity or simply stating what they did, it allows the child to feel inner pride on what they accomplished. It also takes away feelings of needing to impress or have their work validated. Here, you emphasize the effort put into making the drawing, which is something the child can control. Expressing delight in what they have done is something they cannot control.
  • Ask questions.

    Instead of praise statements, an alternate approach is asking questions to elicit a response. This allows the child to form their own opinions. For example, you could ask, “How do you think your game went?” or “How did you come up with that design?” This helps your child gauge how they feel about the experience and develops internal satisfaction about the process used to complete the activity. It allows them to think critically about the behavior or skill and reward themselves for their efforts.

    Asking questions also shows a genuine interest in their process and involvement instead of an empty praise about their performance. They are more likely to find satisfaction in the act of the behavior.
  • Help them internalize pride.

    Instead of “I’m so proud of you!” try “You must be so proud of yourself.” Using this language teaches your child to internalize the pride instead of seeking it from others. If they are constantly chasing their parents, teachers, coaches or peers for approval, they are less likely to feel satisfied. This helps them see their behaviors and feel a sense of accomplishment. They will soon desire that instead of validation.
  • If and when you do praise, direct praise over what a child can control.

    Instead of praising attributes that are uncontrollable (e.g., intelligence, artistic ability), try praising areas the child has control over. These include effort, attitude, compassion and generosity. This might sound like, “You were generous to share your toys,” or, “You tried your best in that game!” It helps to focus on what produced the outcome and, again, internalizes satisfaction with the process over the outcome.

Although it is difficult to change the knee-jerk reaction of offering a value statement as praise, this simple change in language can make a huge difference in your child’s motivation.

A 9-year-old boy was struggling participating in activities he did not pick up quickly. He became easily frustrated because he focused on the end result rather than enjoying the game or tasks. He thought, “Did I win or accomplish what was in front of me?”

As the child’s therapist and father began to help the child internalize his motivation and find satisfaction in the fun and importance of the activity, his behavior began to shift. Instead of saying, “Way to go!” and “You’re great at this game!” he was told, “You’re putting in a lot of effort,” and “You must be proud of how you kept playing even though you were losing.”

It took time to adjust his internalized expectations, but eventually the child became excited to play because he was proud of himself for his behaviors.

Anchorpoint’s parent counseling services can help you or someone you know who is struggling supporting their child or teen. Our family counselors teach parenting skills and child communication strategies. Call at (412)-366-1300 or use our Digital Intake Form to schedule an appointment today. Hope is only a phone call away.