Most kids are motivated–but not by what we think. Most parents fail when it comes to lighting a fire under their kids (metaphorically-speaking).
Many parents are inclined to believe they can motivate kids by offering external rewards, like a higher allowance. But what many social scientists know–and many parents fail to realize–is that traditional rewards aren’t very effective.
Of course, the way your child responds to your motivation efforts is dependent on family circumstances, as well as your child’s age and temperament. But regardless of your child’s personality, research shows, (s)he is unlikely to be motivated by the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment. These strategies rarely work.
Motivation, like parenting, is complex and hard to quantify. However, it is possible to become better at it. Whether you’re persuading your toddler to eat her vegetables, want your teenaged son to study for the SATs, or trying to get your 20- something to move out of the house, here are some tips to keep in mind:
Praise effort rather than intelligence or success.
Parents should praise their kids’ effort, as opposed to innate talent, research suggests. To foster healthy emotional and psychological growth in their children, parents are better off commending their kids’ hard work, rather than flattering their kids’ cognitive gifts. Studies suggest that children who are praised for being smart may show less resilience as adults and may be more likely to avoid challenges. While it’s tempting to tell your kids how smart they are, it’s important to be mindful of your parent-child interactions and how they affect your kids’ development and sense of self.
Take yourself out of the equation.
It’s easy to become overly-invested in your kid’s education and academic life; as parents, we know how important education is to future success. Parents who put pressure on their kids to excel academically are often motivated by their own fears and anxieties surrounding their child’s future success. Remember to keep the big picture in mind. Rather than emphasize your child’s grades in school, help her balance schoolwork with friendships, volunteer work, and family activities. Help her cultivate her own motivations and passions. Pressuring your child is counterproductive and usually makes things worse.
Making a connection is important.
A mounting body of evidence suggests that feeling a sense of connection–a sense of belonging–can be extremely motivating for children, especially for those who’ve experienced adversity. If you want people to develop persistence, or to stick with a project over the long term, you need to make them feel they have a sense of purpose. Cultivating a sense of purpose and engagement is hard to do with simple material rewards and punishments.
Help them cultivate their own motivation.
We parents aren’t great at understanding what motivates (or de-motivates) our children. Figuring out ways to get your kids to tune into their own motivation is key, says Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Parents can stimulate their child’s innate intellectual curiosity by encouraging him or her to pursue interests outside of school. It can be difficult to relinquish control, but giving children ample latitude to find their own passion pays off.