What Motivates Your Child? 7 Ways to Inspire Success

Published June 3, 2022
Mother and daughter doing yoga at home

If you're a parent, you may want your child to get an A on their upcoming science test, start working on a group project before the last minute, or be willing to work hard at their sports practice in order to improve their game. Getting a child to engage in these tasks revolves around motivation, which can be challenging to help them develop and discover on their own. It can seem difficult enough to get your child to fold their laundry, let alone work towards raising a grade in their class, and these challenges may be due to a lack of motivation. Understanding what motivates your child and how to use these elements in your daily life can have a positive impact on your child's academic, social, and personal achievements.

What Motivates Kids?

Want to get your kids moving? Then you need to understand what motivates them. Fortunately, research has some answers to help you out. If you've ever wondered why kids (or anyone, really) are motivated to do one thing but not another, it all comes down to a simple equation for motivation, according to UCLA's Center for Mental Health in Schools. And while it may not be a magic formula, it can help you better understand what helps motivate your kiddos. This involves how much value your child assigns to the task and their expectations surrounding it. Making changes to these two elements might just increase your child's motivation.

Increase Value

How much value does your child assign a task or reward? If a child really likes a certain candy or particularly enjoys playing a specific game, then it has a high value for them. If a child doesn't like brushing their teeth or taking out the trash, then it has a low value. In order for a child to be motivated, they need to find value in what they are doing or working for. Some things to think about when deciding value are:

  • How much time a task takes
  • How much energy is involved
  • Whether your child finds it rewarding
  • If the benefits outweigh the costs

Manage Expectation

Another motivating factor is what your child expects to happen; in other words, whether they believe they will succeed or fail at a task. For example, if you challenge your child to get an A on their next exam when they have only earned a C on previous tests, they will most likely expect to fail because this is too high. But, if you challenge your child to get a B on their next exam in the same situation, they may be more likely to believe that they will succeed. In order for a child to be motivated, they need to trust that they can achieve the goal. Some things to consider about expectations are:

  • If your child has succeeded or struggled with the task in the past
  • The amount of time your child has to prepare/complete the task
  • How your child feels about themselves and their capabilities

Appeal to Different Types of Motivation

There are two different types of motivation, ones that come from within, and ones that come from without, both of which can be used to help motivate your child.

Intrinsic motivations are rewards that come from inside of the child when they feel something is internally valuable and rewarding. It's an important motivator for kids to develop because it helps increase their motivational energy, which makes them work towards a goal with greater effort and persistence. This type of motivation has been found to keep kids engaged for the long term. Some examples of intrinsic motivation are:

Boy holding painting in art class
  • Exploring their curiosity
  • Finding enjoyment in learning
  • Wanting to be healthy
  • Creating fulfilling relationships with others
  • Engaging in something simply because they like it

Extrinsic motivations are rewards that come from the outside. This can be anything from promising a pizza night on Friday if your child does well on their test to giving them high fives when they do a chore. These have been shown to have immediate results, but they only motivate in the short term. Some examples of extrinsic rewards are:

Cheerful mother giving her son a high five in the kitchen
  • Taking kids to the park
  • Giving kids an allowance
  • Signing them up for a sports team
  • Cooking them their favorite food
  • Giving them lots of hugs and attention when they do something well
  • Punishing them when they break a rule

How to Motivate Your Child

If your child is not motivated to do or achieve something right now, that doesn't mean that it'll always be that way, or even that the mindset will feather out into different aspects of their life. There are some things that parents can do to try and spark motivation in their child.

Find Strong Reinforcers

Understanding what your child finds rewarding/values is the first step in better understanding how to motivate them. For example, if your child doesn't like candy, but you keep offering candy as a reward, then they most likely won't be motivated to earn it. The rewards children prefer vary widely depending on their own unique personalities and can be from either intrinsic or extrinsic motivators. Some ways to learn more about your child's values are:

  • Ask them what snacks and activities they like the best.
  • Note whatever toys they play with the most, or how much screen time they use.
  • Observe how excited they are when they come home from a trip or from spending time with friends/family.

Vary Reinforcers Over Time

Once you have found a reinforcer that works for your child, you may feel like you have found the ultimate motivator and know exactly what to use every time when you need to motivate them. However, studies have found that kids actually become less motivated and disengaged when the same reinforcer is used in the long term. Constantly changing the reinforcer used to motivate your child will keep them engaged and motivated to work towards a new reward. Some ways to do this are:

  • Change the reinforcer every week
  • Monitor how much enjoyment your child shows after getting a preferred item over time
  • Ask your child about other things they want to work for

Be a Role Model

Kids look up to their parents, especially when they are younger. This means that if you show interest in something, such as doing math homework, then your child may also take interest in doing math homework. One way to help motivate your kids is to be their motivation role model. Actively engage with them in the tasks that you hope them to be motivated to complete. By bringing a positive attitude to the task, you may be able to make it seem less like work and more like fun. Some ways to do this are:

  • Brush your teeth alongside them and play a song/dance while you both complete the task.
  • Take turns reading a book for school with your child and make silly voices or sounds as you read.
  • Wash the dishes as a team by having your child dry while you wash.

Create New Experiences

Children's expectations surrounding a task, such as whether they will succeed at it or not, are shaped by their past experiences. This means that if a child tried to play catch one day, but couldn't get the hang of things, then the next time someone asks them to play catch, they won't want to play because they believe it's too difficult. Creating new experiences for your child where they are able to engage in the difficult activity, but it's modified to be less challenging, may help them reset expectations and build motivation. Some ways to do this are:

  • Practice playing catch with a bigger or softer ball using your hands instead of a glove.
  • Work through a difficult math problem alongside your child and show them that they have the skills to solve it.
  • Return to a task that your child may have struggled with, such as reading out loud in class, and help them through the task in an easier environment at home.

Use Scaffolding Teaching Methods

Scaffolding is a teaching style where parents choose a topic/skill just out of a child's natural reach, but that is achievable with the help of a parent. This can look like trying to solve a new math problem that is one step above the level a child is currently learning at. It allows parents a hands-on opportunity to help boost their child's confidence. This provides children support as they learn and grow and also shows them that they are capable of achieving difficult tasks, which helps them have more positive expectations of trying other challenging tasks in the future. Some ways to practice this are:

Mother and daughter playing in the park
  • Read a book with your child that is just one step ahead of their current reading level and helping sound out the more difficult words.
  • Help your child across the monkey bars by supporting some of their weight so that they can complete the challenge.
  • Have your child do a more difficult chore around the house that is a bit more difficult than what they are used to and sticking around to help when asked.

Support Your Child When They Struggle

It's completely normal for someone to become upset when they can't do something that seemingly everyone else around them can do. Supporting your child when they struggle will bring them a sense of comfort, and will show them that they are still cared for even if they couldn't do a task. This gives parents an opportunity to talk to their children about using struggles as a learning experience, what it means to try their best, and how to continue on. In addition, it provides kids with the knowledge that someone will catch them if they fall. Some ways to practice this are:

  • Reassure your child about their skills if they don't reach a goal.
  • Offer to help your child when they become overwhelmed by a task.
  • Encourage your child to keep trying new and difficult tasks.

Give Your Child Autonomy

Kids are more likely to be motivated to do something if they feel that it has been self-determined. This means that they decided on the goal themselves. Giving your child more autonomy is one way of setting them up to create intrinsic motivation because it allows them to set the goal, find their value for it, and determine their own expectations surrounding its outcome. Some ways to do this are:

  • Be flexible with goals/expectations you set for your child.
  • Listen to your child's thoughts, feelings, and concerns surrounding goals and expectations.
  • Allow your child to set deadlines/timelines of when to complete a task.

A Reminder for Parents

It's important to remember that even if you find the best reinforcers possible and are providing constant support for your child, motivation may still not find them, and that's okay. That doesn't mean that you've failed as a parent or haven't tried hard enough to spark their motivation. Also, just because you try these techniques and they don't seem to work the first time, it doesn't mean that they haven't had a positive impact on your child in one way or another, and it may even help them discover some intrinsic motivation that they can use in the future. Trying to motivate a child is a difficult task, and it's okay to be gentle with yourself while you try to help them along the way.

Understanding What Helps Motivate Your Child

Parents want their children to be motivated individuals for a variety of reasons, whether it's to put their plate in the sink after they are finished eating or it's tying their shoelaces instead of leaving them dangling. Children can be motivated by a variety of factors stemming from both internal and external forces that help them find value in what they are trying to accomplish. Learning more about what reinforcers help motivate your child, as well as incorporating ways of giving your child more autonomy and providing scaffolding for their learning experiences are ways to build up their intrinsic motivation, which will help them pursue goals with more persistence, engagement, and effort.

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What Motivates Your Child? 7 Ways to Inspire Success