Are you using the wrong motivations with your kids?

How to motivate your kids to learn

A child-rearing conundrum every parent faces is how to motivate their children; be it to learn, or take out the trash. How do you persuade them to want to read, study, and develop a work ethic? We often fall back on the same methods to motivate:

  • Reward
  • Punishment
  • Competition

The problem is that these methods are based on faulty assumptions:

  • Rewards assume that the child knows how to do the work, they just need an incentive.
  • Punishment assumes that the child knows how to do the work, but they refuse to do it.
  • Competition is only an incentive when the child is already convinced that they can win.

So what is the answer?

To find the answer, you must start with the question- "What is motivation?"

The simplest definition is based on the root word "move". To motivate or be motivated is to induce some kind of action.

However, there are two kinds of motivation - external and internal. We often make the mistake of thinking that if we use the proper external motivation, internal motivation will follow. It isn't that there is no place for external motivations, but a dependence of rewards, punishment, or competition is little more than shallow behavior modification.

External motivations also ignore the fact that sometimes kids do not progress because they aren't ready to progress. There are physical and mental factors to take into consideration any time a child is struggling in some area. Instead of pressuring them with punishment, distracting them with a prize, or humiliating them with the stress of competition, address the issue itself.

  • Is the curriculum or learning method you are using working for this child?
  • Do they simply need more practice?
  • Is there a developmental issue that needs to be addressed, like eye-hand coordination, focus, self-control, or critical thinking?
  • Have you demonstrated the task you'd like them to accomplish, and explained why it is important?
  • Do they clearly understand your expectations?

Choosing the best method of motivation is the difference between a child who is learning a skill merely to fill in a sticker chart or keep from getting grounded, and the child who learns in order to advance to higher levels of skill or be a contributing member of the family. The second dynamic is obviously our goal, but we have to view it as a goal if we expect our kids to see it as a goal.

Are we modeling self-motivated behavior? Do we only do what we have to do in order to get by, or when there is a reward or payback in it for us? If we aren't inspired by the intrinsic value of learning and serving others, how can we expect our children to learn for the joy of learning and the prospect of becoming better students, better human beings? Children will internalize more than just phonics rules and math facts from us - they will be affected by our behavior and attitudes toward learning new things, as well as fulfilling our responsibilities.

External motivators aren't without some value, so don't throw away the chore charts and stop rewarding them for their labor. However, think about moving away from traditional methods of motivation, and begin to lay a better foundation of intrinsic self-motivation with:

  • clearly defined goals that give kids direction and purpose 
  • wisdom and patience in addressing developmental issues
  • the tools they need to continue experiencing progress
  • a connection to a vision of their future
  • ownership of, and therefore responsibility for, their education

How do you help your kids become motivated? Share in the comments below -