November 1, 2020

Tips for developing your child’s inner motivation to succeed

Parents often find themselves struggling how to motivate their child and instill a drive to do well, which many view as essential to life success. Unfortunately, this dynamic can turn into a cycle of frequent nagging and strained parent-child relationships. 

In the book “The Self-Driven Child,” authors William Stixrud and Ned Johnson discuss how parents can help children develop internal motivation by supporting their child’s sense of control and autonomy as they grow. This approach does not mean being too permissive or uninvolved. Instead, it helps children assume much of the responsibility for their own learning and behavior. 

Help children cultivate a “growth mindset”  

Psychologist Carol Dweck’s work refers to a “growth mindset,” or the belief that basic qualities - such as intelligence and achievement - can be shaped. Her research found that children praised as smart for figuring out a puzzle were then less likely to try a harder one. This was because they feared no longer appearing smart if they failed.

However, when adults commented on things such as a child’s effort or their strategies, the children worked harder on and enjoyed the task, even tackling a difficult puzzle. By praising a child’s progress when they have found some steps towards success, it helps build the all-important feelings of self-satisfaction and competency - cornerstones of motivation.   

View mistakes as teaching opportunities 

When you must sign that disappointing spelling test, often the tendency is to lecture your child about their poor performance. It’s hard not to get frustrated when a child makes mistakes, especially if they seem to be making the same ones repeatedly. But a child who is struggling may anticipate criticism and simply give up or become defiant. 

Instead, get buy-in from your child and involve them in deciding what will be most helpful to succeed. Children need to feel that you both are on the same team, and you will help them figure out what has gone wrong and then come up with solutions together. 

Ask your child questions: What’s your plan for next time? How will you do better? What do you need to succeed? 

Encourage your child’s skills and interests 

Motivation is fostered by curiosity and a desire to explore and know about the world. Encourage intellectual curiosity by being patient with your child’s questions and, in return, engage them by asking what they know about a topic. Teach them where to find information, such as helping your six-year-old pick out an interesting book about dinosaurs at the library.  

You can also link their interests to emerging skills. For example, encourage them to calculate how long it takes to save for a new toy. Or regularly make dinner conversation about news stories and solicit their thoughts and opinions. 

Establish structured routines 

Establishing good habits helps sustain motivation, even when rewards are not immediate. Set the stage for success at home, ensuring basic needs are met, including sleep, time for free play, and physical activity. A study space that’s free of clutter and distraction helps, as does a schedule with built-in breaks. 

From a young age, make a calendar together so everyone knows what to expect. Also together, map out expectations for screen time: what is negotiable, non-negotiable, and realistic for your family? It’s tempting just to lay down the law but hearing children out and involving them in establishing rules makes them more likely to follow them. 

Setbacks can build resilience, but only if a child understands what they can do differently and feels capable of doing that. And don’t forget to examine your own anxiety about your child’s performance. It’s normal to worry about a child who is struggling, but our own fears may simply increase pressure and family conflict. 


Lisa Phillips, MSW, LMSW, has been a parent educator at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital since 2001, and is a contributor to the award-winning “Parenting Corner” column. She can be reached at 504.896.9591; chnola.org/parentingcenter. 

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