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How to motivate your child

There are three steps to encouraging your child – competence, connection and choice, says Ilona Boniwell

by Psychologies

hands all together

Whenever I talk to a parent, the same theme emerges again and again: ‘My son/daughter is just not motivated to study/work/do anything. What can I possibly do?’

Motivation is a peculiar little animal of the human psyche. The more you force it to come out of its hiding hole, the further it retreats. And sometimes, when you try to get things under control, it disappears altogether.

Although motivation can’t be forced, there are factors that can improve the rate of its occurrence, which can make children progress from a state of amotivation (when they don’t want and don’t do) to extrinsic motivation (when they do something because they’re forced to), to introjected motivation (doing something out of feeling guilty), through to integrated motivation (I understand why I am doing this) and finally, to the intrinsic (I like it) one. Think of the factors underlying motivation in terms of the triple ‘C’ – competence, connection and choice.

Competence is a tendency to be interested and open and seek learning opportunities, to acquire new skills. Start by observing your child – where does her competence express itself? How can you build on this and also break down gaining competence into do-able chunks?

We can appreciate that reading an entire chapter in a textbook can be daunting for a typical 12-year-old. Separate it into sections, creating smaller sub-goals. Each time they finish one, and achieve their sub-goal, their competence is building up.

Connection is a need to relate. It involves building strong relationships with others and feeling that you belong. While younger children are more prone to establishing relationships with family members, adolescents are far more likely to give priority to others their own age.

This is why some of the easiest ways to build their motivation is by bringing a friend along for an outing, encouraging two or three pals to work on a project together, or signing up your son or daughter for a class in which their new peers are likely to ‘approve’ certain activities outside of their usual scope of interest. Andrew, my 16-year-old, had not found museums to be ‘cool’ for the last three years or so, but he recently started to catch up on his cultural awareness, simply because a girl he fancies is interested in art!

Choice means doing something in accordance with one’s personal volition (rather than external control), aligning our actions with something we value. If we are relatively free to choose our actions, then it’s easier for us to appreciate the reasons for performing them. However, if we feel forced to do something, it’s more difficult for us to internalise the motivation.

That’s why offering rewards for activities that should be internally motivating actually serves to undermine performance and achievement. So forget about bribery for exam results, and try to put your teen into a position of responsibility instead. Once they feel that the responsibility is real (‘It is you who is choosing your college, not me’), they are very likely to rise to the occasion.

More inspiration

Read: Positive Psychology In A Nutshell by Ilona Boniwell (Open University Press, £12.99)

Find: some original and interesting research on motivation at selfdeterminationtheory.org 

Learn: more about motivation by taking an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University

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