The Gift of Intrinsic Motivation

By Janet Lansbury

“You can be anything you want to be.”

Sounds like an empowering affirmation to give children, right? And yet these encouraging words from my mother created confusion and pressure, and I’m still not sure why. I think I heard “the sky’s the limit,”and it seemed too overwhelming. I thought I had to soar.

Would it be enough to just be me?

I believe I would have benefited from the more down-to-earth advice I give my children, “There will be things you like doing that will probably also come easily to you. No matter what happens or what others tell you, keep doing those things.”

I see intrinsic motivation as a precious and delicate little bell. Call it passion or a “calling,” but whatever you call it, keep ringing it.

Many of our best intentions can stifle the sound of the bell. One of the most understandable distractions we face when trying to encourage enriching prospects for our children is the desire to offer our kids the experiences we wish we’d had as kids. But by signing our daughter up for the trombone lessons she never once mentioned wanting, just to expose her, we send a message: I want you to do this, and I know better than you. Seemingly benign parental decisions like these teach children not to listen to the bell.

Even when kids are passing through phases in which they need to resist and defy us (like toddlerhood and adolescence), they have an overriding wish to please. They’re very sensitive to our feelings about them. We are always far more powerful to our children than they let on. Sensitive awareness of our influence is the key to protecting their developing sense of intrinsic motivation.

Here are seven other things we can do to nurture our children’s self motivation:

1. Trust and enjoy the activities children choose and are able to do, rather than urging them forward, or worrying about what they’re not doing yet and pushing (or even secretly wishing) for more.

2. From the beginning with infants, give children plenty of opportunities to lead and self-direct their play.

3. Minimize scheduled activities and maximize downtime, daydreaming, and solo play so that children have lots of time to commune with their own interests and thoughts.

4. WAIT until children express a strong interest before adding a lesson or structured activity to their schedule (which will save you lots of money — wasted time, too).

5. Give acknowledgements and encouragement rather than “hooplas” and praise so that children own their efforts and accomplishments. “You did that yourself. You must be proud,” rather than “good job.”

6. Encourage children to be self-rewarding by not offering money, prizes or bribes for their accomplishments.

7. When your child expresses doubts (“There are so many good teenage photographers. What am I doing?”), remind your child to listen to the bell, ignore the distractions and just carry on doing what he or she loves.

Then, someday, you’ll get a note like the one I received from my college freshman:

“I’m motivated almost entirely intrinsically because I was never taught that I needed to get straight A’s to please my parents. And at the same time, I do know that they care for me deeply, and conversely I love them to death.”

Photo credits: Getty Images