elevating child care

The Gift of Intrinsic Motivation

“You can be anything you want to be.”
Sounds like an empowering affirmation to give children, right? And yet these encouraging words from my mother created confusion and pressure, and I’m still not sure why. I think I heard “the sky’s the limit,” and it seemed too overwhelming. I thought I had to soar.
Would it be enough to just be me?

I believe I would have benefited from the more down-to-earth advice I give my children, “There will be things you like doing that will probably also come easily to you. No matter what happens or what others tell you, keep doing those things.”

I see intrinsic motivation as a precious and delicate little bell. Call it passion or a “calling,” but whatever you call it, keep ringing it.

Many of our best intentions can stifle the sound of the bell. One of the most understandable distractions we face when trying to encourage enriching prospects for our children is the desire to offer our kids the experiences we wish we’d had as kids. But by signing our daughter up for the trombone lessons she never once mentioned wanting, just to expose her, we send a message: I want you to do this, and I know better than you. Seemingly benign parental decisions like these teach children not to listen to the bell.

Even when kids are passing through phases in which they need to resist and defy us (like toddlerhood and adolescence), they have an overriding wish to please. They’re very sensitive to our feelings about them. We are always far more powerful to our children than they let on. Sensitive awareness of our influence is the key to protecting their developing sense of intrinsic motivation.

Here are seven other things we can do to nurture our children’s self-motivation:

1. Trust and enjoy the activities children choose and are able to do, rather than urging them forward, or worrying about what they’re not doing yet and pushing (or even secretly wishing) for more.

2. From the beginning with infants, give children plenty of opportunities to lead and self-direct their play.

3. Minimize scheduled activities and maximize downtime, daydreaming, and solo play so that children have lots of time to commune with their own interests and thoughts.

4. WAIT until children express a strong interest before adding a lesson or structured activity to their schedule (which will save you lots of money — wasted time, too).

5. Give acknowledgements and encouragement rather than “hooplas” and praise so that children own their efforts and accomplishments. “You did that yourself. You must be proud,” rather than “good job.”

6. Encourage children to be self-rewarding by not offering money, prizes or bribes for their accomplishments.

7. When your child expresses doubts (“There are so many good teenage photographers. What am I doing?”), remind your child to listen to the bell, ignore the distractions and just carry on doing what he or she loves.

Then, someday, you’ll get feedback like I did in a note from my college freshman:

“I’m motivated almost entirely intrinsically because I was never taught that I needed to get straight A’s to please my parents. And at the same time, I do know that they care for me deeply, and conversely I love them to death.”

I share more about nurturing intrinsic motivation in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

(This post was originally written for and published by eHow)


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5 Responses to “The Gift of Intrinsic Motivation”

  1. avatar Ackerly Rick says:

    The key thing about praise of any sort is to ask yourself “what is my motivation?” If it is simply an involuntary outburst of delight, it’s good. If you’re doing it for a purpose, it’s manipulation whatever it is that you say.

    • avatar janet says:

      Yes! I agree wholeheartedly. It’s not about the words so much as our intentions, which will come through to children in whatever we say. It’s just like my acting teacher used to say, “If you’re thinking it, the audience knows it.” Our children are the most keenly perceptive audience.

  2. avatar Kelly Spauldimg says:

    Yes your child’s affirmation of what worked is a blessimg! It’s never too late to start ♥

  3. avatar Erin Killian says:

    Thank you for the reminder. I have three boys — 5 (almost 6), 3 and 1 year old. The (public) school wanted us to move our 5 year old to first grade because he can read and write and do basic math, but we decided for his emotional health to keep him in K. Then I was talking with a friend yesterday who has her 5 year old in piano and I felt a twinge of, “Am I letting my boy down because he’s not in scheduled activities yet?” I know it would be too much for our family. He loves to read and write and ride bikes and play with this brother. We take him camping and on trips so I know he gets experiences that fulfill him. He’s mentioned wanting to try soccer, and we’ll look into that next spring. But we generally don’t do extra curricular activities yet. and I’m pretty sure that’s ok, but I do feel strange sometimes — like I’m letting my kid down. This article made me feel better — so thank you.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hurray! I’m happy to be able to support your instincts. Your boy sounds right where he’s supposed to be. Enjoy!

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