It can be really tempting to use short-term solutions to motivate children, especially when faced with an immediate problem. Persuading them to take medicine, leave the house, join an activity or tidy their room can end up with us falling back on traditional approaches of rewards, praise, nagging or punishing.
We might reason or plead with them or promise a treat. Maybe we praise them every time they manage a mouthful of dinner or answer a homework question or warn them of a consequence if they don’t.
But how well do these strategies help your child and their motivation long term?
What motivates your child?
Children start off life deeply motivated to learn. They begin with a growth mindset. This term, coined by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, describes a positive belief around beginning and mastering new learning and skills, and sticking with a task, even when it feels hard.
We often see young children creatively finding ways to achieve a goal when what they’ve tried so far hasn’t worked. This is why a typically developing child will learn to walk, talk, and learn all manner of really complex skills even though it takes time and many setbacks along the way.
Although some children might show more determination than others, most don’t doubt that what they want to do is possible. At a young age, kids don’t blame themselves when they can’t do something.
External motivators decrease motivation
And yet, as they grow, we often perceive children as lacking in motivation.
Usually it’s because we really want them to do something and they’re not doing it. Or they say they want to achieve something but stop trying. Their focus drifts from one thing to another, and they lose interest and concentration easily.
We might feel tempted at this point to promise a treat or create a reward chart to encourage our children to complete tasks. But these external motivators have been found to have limited success and can even have the opposite effect, decreasing the intrinsic motivation our children already have.
Alfie Kohn shares compelling research which suggests that using external rewards stores up problems for the future. Still, these methods remain tempting because they feel like a quick solution in gaining our children’s cooperation. What can we do instead?
Your feelings about motivation matter
Issues around motivation start early. When a child who is able to feed themselves begs to be helped, for example, or a child who could easily put toys on a shelf complains and says they can’t.
As parents, we meet these moments consumed with our feelings about what might be happening. Think of a time when your child wanted you to dress them or carry their bag. What feelings do you have about yourself as a parent and where the limit lies? Have these questions run through your head?
- Am I right or wrong to hold a limit about this?
- Is it too hard?
- Am I being too strict?
- What if they never become independent?
- Are they really too little, tired or weak?
- Am I being mean to say no?
- Should I help them this one time?
These are good questions, and helpful to answer, although they can fog our mind in the moment, leading us to uncertainty.
We might also step into comparisons, asking ourselves why other kids seem enthusiastic and willing when ours is not? We may blame ourselves, wondering why we can’t inspire or encourage the child to try.
We may view a child negatively, as our own inner critic tells us “They don't do anything! They’re lazy! They’re so difficult.”
We may feel stuck in a cycle or begging, pleading, encouraging, rewarding and even bribing our child to do something, even simply daily necessities, like putting on shoes or going outside.
When working with motivation, it’s as important to address our feelings as it is to work on the issue with the child because they can muddy our thinking and drain our energy. When this happens, we do tend to reach for what seems like an easy fix or short-term solution, even when we know it is not effective long-term.
When is your child motivated?
A good way to begin to address this is to simply notice times when your child has high levels of motivation. Look out for moments when they:
- enjoy an activity;
- feel deeply interested in learning to do something;
- show a strong desire to show they’re capable of managing a task or skill, however small it seems;
- realise they’ll have more fun when they’ve mastered the skill;
- feel competent and capable of taking on just the right amount of challenge to make it interesting without it being overwhelming;
- persevere when things get tough;
- have someone they trust supporting them and believing in them and feel motivated to do more or try something new;
- tolerate frustration when things don’t go to plan.
When motivation is high, things feel less impossible.
Allow time for them to try, and to feel frustration, upset and failure.
By the time parents look for support to motivate their child, it’s often because there’s an issue related to schoolwork, sports or other hobbies, but we can begin working on motivation way ahead of these big conflicts by allowing lots of time and space to work on struggle and accomplishment early on.
I remember when my child was a tiny tot, able to walk but not quite talking in full sentences yet. We spent a sunny day in the park and, after some play and connection, he started walking across the grass to the swings. He was very motivated to get there and able to walk that distance but he suddenly paused and reached out to be carried.
I paused with him and said, “I think you can walk by yourself.”
Many times when this had happened before, he would decide to walk. At other times, he would protest more and then I would carry him. On this day, we had plenty of time and I knew it would be fine to pause and let him learn a little about what he was capable of doing.
He protested more loudly and then started to cry. I crouched down by his side and said, “It’s a long way to walk. I know you can do it. I’m right here with you.”
He cried loudly and long and I stayed with him, listening with my full, warm attention. He wasn’t old enough to be able to express his feelings verbally – maybe he felt a little tired or discouraged – but I knew he had the option to rest whenever he needed to and it felt like a good moment to work on those feelings for us both.
This process, of warmly listening to a child’s upset without fixing, judging or shutting them down is what we call Staylistening.
After a while, he stopped crying and continued walking over to the swings. We had a lovely time laughing together and when we were ready to walk back, he walked the whole way.
This was one of many small events where he got to work on those feelings of things being a little too hard while I had the capacity to listen and help him build his resilience.
Making time to do this helps your child build an identity for themselves of someone who can do hard things.
If you’re reading this and your child is already past the early years and struggling with motivation, don’t worry. All is not lost. The same idea still applies at any age; by allowing them time to work on their feelings over small things, as and when you can listen well to their upset, you can make big progress towards building their growth mindset.
Asking “What’s MY motivation?” and other enlightening questions
Looking for these small moments in your everyday routine is helpful for you as a parent or caregiver too. Use them to notice where you question or doubt your decisions.
Concerns such as “This might be too much for my child,” or “I need to teach this skill right now or they might struggle their whole life,” are quite common. It can take some work on our part to undo these feelings we have. Often we find ourselves carrying so many feelings it becomes hard to listen to our children and to show them we have confidence and trust in their ability to persist.
Before I listened to my little son that day on the grass, I had worked on those feelings in Listening Partnerships many times.
I used the time to express my doubts that maybe I was too harsh if I didn’t carry him, that maybe he felt I wasn’t supporting him enough, that maybe he really was tired and I was not being loving when I refused to carry him.
I remember having a sore back at the time, and expressing an urgency I felt to teach him that I would not be able to carry him all the time.
Whatever the issue you’re facing, it can be really helpful to explore both sides of that internal argument. Offloading your doubts and fears, urgency and impatience in a safe space frees you up to bring your best thinking and flexibility over how much you hold the limit in each moment.
Holding a limit and letting it go
At Hand in Hand we don’t advocate rigidity around the limits we set. There may be times when you decide it is a good idea to do these things for your child, even if they are strong and capable.
It is ok to back down when you’re no longer feeling confident to hold a limit.
It’s ok to realise you don’t have the capacity to listen to their feelings of frustration and upset without getting emotionally entangled yourself.
It’s ok if you are short on time and you decide that it’s more important to meet the goal of getting there on time than it is to be late. On other days, you may make a different choice, and that’s ok too.
Trust that you will know when and how you want to work on an on-going issue around motivation.
When that time comes, you still have flexibility. And you don’t have to fix everything or show your child too much. It can be enough to just hold space as they work through their own fears, doubts and insecurities.
It works pretty much the same way as it worked for me and my son that day in the park.
In fact, the exact same process of suggesting the limit and then listening to your child’s feelings about it will be useful in handling many challenges as your child grows.
As a teacher, I remember listening to a 9-year-old child who had slumped his head over a page of maths problems and declared, “I can’t do it.”
I sat beside him and said, “It feels like you can’t do it. I think you might just manage the first one.”
I sat there for a long time, often being interrupted by other children in the class but mostly giving him as much of my full, warm attention as I could, patiently waiting and listening.
Every now and then, I would say, “Let’s look at the first one together,” and he would protest and say, “No! I can’t do this. I don’t want to!”
He lay with his head on the desk for quite some time. Eventually, I said, “It’s time to sit up now.”
He ignored me and continued lying there so I repeated the request every so often. I saw these refusals not as stubborn defiance, but as work. Progress.
After a while he began to get irritated and moved a little. He sat up and thumped his hand on the desk and asked me to leave. I continued sitting there and said, “I’m going to stay right here. I know you can do this.”
He got upset and cried some angry tears as he let me know how much he wanted me to go. I stayed there listening until he was done and then asked if he could look at the first maths problem with me.
He did and managed it. In fact, he got faster and faster and completed the whole page over the course of the morning.
I could see his confidence in his ability had grown.
Bringing a limit and listening to the feelings in the moment can work to shift whatever is holding a child back. Clearing those blocks out of the way can help them access the motivation they already have inside them. What we sometimes view as “lacking in motivation,” is often not a true reflection.
Once the barriers are cleared out of the way, we notice that the motivation to try and to overcome has been there all along. Fears and overwhelm just got in the way.
Waiting for a child to ask for help
“Activities that lead to a state of flow are often child-directed, meaning children take charge of their own learning by exploring topics that they choose and are personally meaningful to them,” say Amy Eisenmann and Helen Hadani of Genius of Play.
There are times it can be necessary and quicker to anticipate our children’s needs, but giving them opportunities to practise asking for help is a useful exercise that supports their developing skills and competences. It’s also an empowering way for children to learn that they can take control of a situation, identify and communicate what they need, and have their needs met.
A great way to practise this is during Special Time. During this one-on-one time, set a timer for five to ten minutes and give all of your undivided attention to your child. Let them choose just what they want to do, and hold back from teaching or fixing problems.
For instance, maybe your child is trying to build with blocks. You can see that the piece isn’t going to balance. Instead of making suggestions on how to balance more effectively, you can simply give your full, warm attention while they experiment.
They might lose interest and move on to something else, or they might get annoyed and start to cry or get angry. This is a perfect opportunity to help them build frustration tolerance. Instead of being a fixer or problem-solver, you can just be available to listen to what feels hard for them.
Listening, not fixing, can improve motivation issues
At this point, lean in. Staylisten, and give your full, warm attention while you listen. The words you say are simply to state the problem they’re facing. You don’t need to offer a solution. You can say something like, “You really want that block to stay but it keeps falling off.”
Keep on listening with an attitude that you trust that they’ll figure things out. Your children can offload whatever is holding them back and recover their own good thinking.
Many times after crying over a problem like this, children do suddenly figure it out for themselves. Other times, they suddenly ask you to show them how to do it. Once they’ve asked, show them willingly. After clearing out those feelings of frustration and upset you’ll see that often they are more receptive to take in new learning.
Next time they try this activity, it will likely be easier.
Create an atmosphere of acceptance
Having this focused one-on-one time to connect creates a space where children can feel your full acceptance and approval in them and whatever they show interest in. It provides a good, regular way for children to be able to rest in the safety of your warm, loving attention and to feel brave enough to try something new or take a risk. This acceptance does so much to dissolve feelings of self-doubt and, over time, difficulties with engaging or making decisions become easier.
You also have regular moments to tune into what naturally motivates your child.
Experiment with how your child best gets engaged. Some children respond well to your constant interaction and recognition as they work on a task. Others will prefer you to stay quiet and even remain at a slight distance while you beam your silent loving approval their way.
How chores help your child feel competent and responsible
Many families involve their children in chores and this is an excellent place to work on issues around motivation. When children feel like they are contributing and valued for what they can do, their levels of motivation rise.
Unless, of course, chores feel onerous, punitive or overwhelming, and your child resists them.
Start with micro-chores
Asking a child to tidy their room or set the table might be too much when you are just beginning to work on chores. Instead, start small, with a micro-chore. Ask your child to hold something for a moment or fetch one thing. When you ask with a light tone and thank them quietly, not worrying too much if they aren’t in the mood, over time you create an expectation that these tasks are normal in your family.
This is a great way for even the youngest children to feel like competent, willing helpers, as well as supporting older children if we decide that we would like them to contribute in this way. If you start small, you can build more once the habit is established.
Making motivation feel easy
“We are motivated to repeat those experiences that made us feel good, and avoid those that made us feel bad.” Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University
Are there things you really resist doing now as an adult?
Often, you can link whatever task it is back to your own past experiences. You might want to start running but if you were made to go for long, rainy, cold runs at school, actually making time and pulling on your running shoes may fill you with dread.
Your teacher may have criticised some miserable maths results, so ever since you have shied away from totalling bills.
If you were told off for being lazy and made to stay home and tidy your room, you might find you have a heavy heart when it comes to household chores.
These times from our past when we felt judged, unworthy or overwhelmed stay with us. The feeling that we had been asked to do far more than we felt capable of doing but powerless to say no or ask for help is what we are aiming to avoid wherever possible with our children. Feeling alone in the struggle is often what made it hardest to bear.
When you still run into resistance
Play is an excellent way to encourage children to complete tasks, and creates more positive associations that lead to increased motivation.
Instead of starting with an instruction to tidy up, you can announce that you are an expert at tidying and then act the bumbling fool and put things in the wrong place. Or reverse roles and absolutely refuse to put anything away, letting your child boss you around while they gleefully watch you submit to their power.
There are many playful ways to approach tidying up and a similar playful attitude can help with homework, daily routine tasks like dressing and leaving the house or anytime you’re looking for cooperation from your child. When we take on the less powerful role, allowing our children to feel like the smart one, the faster one or the stronger one, we often notice that our children will try harder. When they are the ones with more control, not only do they take risks, they laugh!
For this to free up our children’s thinking, we need to drop our agenda and follow their lead in play.
This undoubtedly takes a lot of effort and participation from us but also strengthens the relationship. Working together develops skills and a general feeling of “We all work together in this family to get things done.”
Nagging our children, feeling annoyed and resentful when we have to pick up the slack, or constant arguing creates discord and disconnection. When we can lead with connection, children feel like we are on their side, so that setting limits and supporting them as they take on more responsibilities feels easier. You’ll notice when they have a need for you to work alongside them in a task, to offer gentle encouragement as they complete something nearby, or to congratulate them after they master independence.
This is rarely a straight progression, and you can expect that some days or months your child will need more support, even when they have previously shown they can do something alone.
Praise the process over the achievement
Research has shown that focusing attention on a child's efforts and their ability to recover from setbacks is more beneficial than praising them for achievements already made.
When we are able to let go of an outcome and show our children that we value their effort and progress, even if it’s far from perfect, when we continue to set warm limits or show up with high expectations, believing they are capable, and when we focus on play and connection, children become eager to learn and overcome setbacks. They develop an identity of being someone who loves a challenge.
This fosters a growth mindset. Inner motivation that’s powerful and long-lasting.
Sowing seeds for growth
From our children’s earliest days, when we take care not to scoop them up immediately after every fall but to come close alongside them, listening and waiting for them to show us how they can recover or ask for our help, we sow the seeds for their growth.
As they approach independence, they still need us alongside, cheering them on, tending to them with sensitivity and care at times, holding expectations to move through the discomfort and fear at other times. Throughout, we can be sure that their motivation will develop and grow strong when we use these connection tools and support our children to believe that they can face and overcome challenges.
What motivates your child?
Use these tips and reminders whenever you come up against a motivation issue with your child. These guiding ideas will help you decide how to progress and move forward with warmth and connection.
- Rather than focusing on your child’s lack of motivation and notice what activities are deeply motivating for them.
- Free up your thinking so you can be flexible in the moment. Use a Listening Partnership to explore how you feel about setting a limit around where your child gets stuck.
- Look at both sides of your internal argument: what might happen if you are too soft versus what might happen if you are too harsh?
- Focus on building connection with your child in Special Time. This is a great place to take a break from trying to teach, encourage, praise or help without being asked. Your warm acceptance, approval and confidence is powerful! Get a free guide to Special Time here.
- Approach tasks playfully, letting your child take control and use laughter and fun as a way to connect.
- Partner with your child so they feel part of a team. When they work alongside you and feel sure of your loving encouragement they can follow your lead more willingly.
- Focus on the effort they make and the ways they recover from mistakes and setbacks. Direct your praise more towards these skills than end results or achievements.
Discover how these tools help your child to co-regulate.
Join our free class now and find out how. Register here.