Developing internal motivation

How to help your child develop internal motivation

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Raise the bar

Like a mother bird who nudges her baby out of the nest, we have to help our kids to achieve beyond what they think are their limits, says Jim Taylor, author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child. Without encouragement to get up, get involved and try, kids who are not keeners by nature are in danger of becoming content couch potatoes.

Linda Willis,* an education assistant in Alliston, Ont., says her boys are underachievers in school and extracurricular activities. Despite being a gifted student, Carter is putting in the minimum work required to get average marks in grade four. His brother, Jackson, in grade two, is so addicted to Nintendo DS that getting him to put it down and get moving in a hockey game is a never-ending fight.

The payoff from effort feels great when it’s over, says Taylor. But, he adds, “working hard doesn’t feel good all the way through.” That’s why many kids knuckle down only until whatever they’re working on gets tough. Then they will look to you to see if they have gone far enough to stop.

For some children, a shot in the arm like “Awesome job so far, but bet you can do even better” will be enough to raise the bar so that they can keep trying to jump over it. However, what about the real foot-draggers, who sulk and mutter, “I hate stupid violin!” in response to your encouragement? For them, you may have to lay down the law, Taylor says.

It’s good to start with a reminder of your family’s expectations around extracurricular activities and the effort that goes into them; for example, maybe music lessons continue until your child passes a certain test. Then talk to her about the goals and benefits of the activity — why she signed up for violin in the first place. Remind her of that rush of pride she felt when she performed at the recital, so she’ll remember how good an accomplishment feels. Also remind her that it’s OK to fail, Taylor says.

But be sure to keep the bar attainable. If your child studied hard for his English test and got a B, then his motivation to succeed is not the issue. It’s if he played video games instead of studying for the test that you need to light a fire under him.

*Names changed by request.

Find that spark

Young kids are naturally motivated to do their best “because learning is fun,” says Steve Udvari, co-owner of StudySpot, an academic coaching centre in Toronto. Often, though, they seem to lose motivation as they grow — perhaps because making playdough animals in JK is admittedly more fun than learning multiplication tables in grade four.

When you see that your child has lost passion for a subject or activity, ask yourself where it went and why, Taylor says. Peer pressure is often at play — kids are always watching the skills and grades of those around them.

Willis can relate. She says Carter was eagerly reading chapter books in grade one and it wasn’t until grade three — when he took the gifted screening test and started getting teased by his peers for being smart — that he stopped trying.

To reignite that interest at school, Udvari says, “start by identifying a passion your child feels for an activity she loves — be it drama, video games or horseback riding. Then ask about that warm feeling she gets when she tries her best and comes out on top.” Once she realizes that by trying hard, she’ll feel good again — even in a subject she may not love — giving her all becomes much more enjoyable. “You want to focus your child on how she achieved that feeling, through practice and hard work, so that she can recreate it in a school setting. Because deep down, kids want to feel good about everything they do.”

Focus on effort

Many kids underachieve because they are scared to fail, Taylor says. “The message from parents who cringe every time their child misses a goal or brings home a D is that if you fail, you are a loser.” So instead of trying their best and coming up short, kids don’t bother trying.

When it comes to sports, Taylor tells parents to reduce the pressure by keeping quiet on the sidelines. Or if you can’t help but cheer, make sure you do it whether she comes in first or last. “You’re there to support her efforts, win or lose,” Taylor says. “Screaming at the end of the race says you’re proud only if she crosses the finish line first, and that’s a surefire way to kill motivation.”

Like sports arenas, school is a highly competitive place. “A child’s motivation in school is often related to how smart he feels compared to his peers,” says Udvari. If your child isn’t keeping up, rather than working harder, he may give up, believing he just isn’t smart enough to succeed. “What kids don’t realize is that it’s their effort that produces good grades, not necessarily their intelligence,” Udvari says.

For a kid who seems stuck in the C zone despite his efforts, you may want to bring in outside help, perhaps a tutor or understanding teacher. Udvari says many kids have not been taught skills, such as keeping their binders organized, note taking and proper study habits. And, he adds, praise your child’s efforts — which he can always improve — rather than his intelligence.

Back off

Sometimes an activity is just the wrong fit for your child. You may discover that your son is tone-deaf or your tomboy is never going to be a ballerina. “If the activity is not right, replace it with another,” Taylor says, but not before the end of the season or semester. The importance of fulfilling a commitment is a lesson worth teaching.

While children need physical, musical and artistic outlets, they also need a say in the activities they choose. “Kids have to take ownership over their work in order to feel motivated by it,” Taylor says. “You want your child to work hard because he enjoys the rewards, not because you are standing over him, monitoring his performance.”

When choosing activities, be careful not to project your passions onto your child. You may have been the star of the swim team three years running, but your child is sure to have her own interests, abilities and energy level.

Sometimes a child will decide that an activity she once loved just doesn’t cut it anymore. After four years of competitive figure skating, Maya Curtis,* an 11-year-old from Sackville, NB, told her mom, Liz, that she wanted to quit. “She loved practising four times a week and going to competitions twice a year, and then she seemed to just lose that passion,” Curtis says. “And when it’s not a team sport, you need a lot of self-motivation to practise.”

After much discussion, Curtis thinks that the competitive element may have crushed Maya’s love of the sport. So at season’s end, she let her quit — for now — and take up dance instead. “It was a hard decision because she was winning medals, but if she didn’t enjoy it, there was no point,” she says.

*Names changed by request.

Make it work

But what if your child is unmotivated simply because he’d rather watch SpongeBob than work on his science project or get dressed for hockey?

In that case, click off the screen, sit down and make it clear that when it comes to school and some activities, there is no option — so he might as well give it his all, Taylor says. “There are lots of things in life that are no fun — maybe it’s chores, maybe it’s math homework. But you do it and you do it well because it’s part of the job.”

While participating at school may be non-negotiable, explain to your child that he can control his approach to it, Taylor says. Ask questions like: How did it feel to get that D? If you tried harder, what would happen? How would you feel? Now, suddenly, your child may be thinking about what he can do to change his feelings of helplessness rather than letting those emotions defeat him.

At the same time, remind him that there are benefits of practice in any activity. In addition to the pride you feel when you master piano scales, for instance, there is value in understanding musical language and being able to join a band one day.

In the end, your child is most likely to stay motivated if there is a healthy balance between what you want for her and what she wants for herself, says Taylor. To achieve that balance, tell her it’s a trade-off. “She gets to choose an activity, but so do you,” he says. “A half-hour of Nintendo is fine — but not until she has practised guitar.”

Waiting it out

It was always the same when Aidan Murphy’s* parents would sign him up for a new sport. Whether it was soccer, T-ball or water polo, “Aidan would end up sitting on the sidelines. Then after a few weeks, it would be ‘I don’t want to go anymore,’” recalls Aidan’s mom, Jasmine Murphy.

Looking back, Murphy realizes that at six, seven or eight years old, her son just wasn’t ready to learn a sport or join a team. When her husband, Brian, suggested they stop forcing it and wait for Aidan to express interest in an activity, she agreed. They made it clear that Aidan’s new downtime would be for reading or creative play, not TV and video games.

Then when he turned 10, Aidan asked to learn the violin, play baseball and even join a weekly hockey team for novice skaters. Today Aidan is passionate about all three activities, eagerly looking forward to games and even music practice.

While she wasn’t sure at the time, Murphy now believes that backing off was the best thing they could do for their son. “It’s really about letting kids become themselves,” she says. 

*Names changed by request.

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