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We all want our children to achieve great things in life. However, it can be difficult to get them motivated to create and pursue their dreams.
Research shows we should strive to raise our children in a way that boosts their intrinsic motivation rather than motivating them through praise and rewards (known as extrinsic motivation). That way they'll be prepared to succeed when we’re not looking over their shoulders.
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We combed through latest studies on the topic of motivation and found seven effective ways to help you motivate your children.
1. Help them Discover their Passions
Children’s intrinsic motivation can get a big boost when they find a subject they’re passionate about. Engaging children to find and pursue their passions is harder than offering rewards or threatening punishments. However, Dr. Kate Roberts, Ph.D., says “doing this teaches children to take ownership over their choices and behavior.”
One way to help our children make their dreams and aspirations real is by creating a dream board. They can use it to post images and text that remind them of what they want. Dream boards are powerful because they use visualization, which AJ Adams says can “enhance motivation, increase confidence and self-efficacy, improve motor performance, prime your brain for success, and increase states of flow.”
In other words, our brain is so powerful that just imagining doing a thing can make us better at that thing. Dream boards are a great tool for that kind of visualization. They’re also fun and engaging to create and maintain. Encouraging children to add to their dream boards can be a motivator in itself!
2. Help them Set Goals
In order to pursue their dreams, children have to formulate goals in the first place. Their dream board will help them visualize the future, but they’ll still need to determine concrete STEPS to get there. That’s where parents come in.
Everyone has heard somebody in math class say, “When are we going to use this stuff?” Many of us may even have been the person saying it. As parents, we’re in a unique position to help our children connect the dots between their vision of the future and the goals that will get them there.
We’ve previously written about the goal ladder technique. Using this technique, one large goal can be broken up into smaller goals. This technique is ideal for helping children learn to work through their goals in a rigorous way.
If your child wants to be an engineer, show them that success in geometry class is one rung on the ladder to becoming an engineer. Once a task they don’t like becomes part of their goal, they'll develop the intrinsic motivation to keep up with those tasks themselves.
3. Encourage Independent Thinking
It can be hard for anyone, especially children, to maintain intrinsic motivation. Reality might not align cleanly with what they imagined when laying out their goals. That’s why it’s important not just to let children set their goals, but also decide HOW they’re going to pursue those goals.
Dozens of studies have shown that freedom to choose is one of the most powerful persuasion techniques. The more children feel that they’ve determined their own path, the more motivated they are to remain on it. This doesn’t mean we can’t brainstorm with our children, but it does mean that we shouldn’t do the work for them. They’re their dreams, after all.
Research has shown that collaboration is a strong motivator for challenging tasks in preschoolers. Giving children the opportunity to collaborate on achieving their dreams can help them overcome the challenges they encounter.
It can be hard to find ways to collaborate on something as personal as following one’s own dream. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Parents, siblings, and friends can collaborate on the creation of a dream board or goal ladders. If that collaboration is toward a shared goal (like a family trip, for example), the collective motivation will be even stronger.
5. Do Not Hover
It can be tempting to sit and watch everything your children are doing over their shoulders, to make sure they’re doing it right. You may also be tempted to praise and reward every time they complete a step on their goal ladder.
But research conducted by Lepper and Greene of Stanford University over 40 years ago demonstrated that children performing activities under adult surveillance show markedly LESS subsequent interest in the activities than children who weren’t monitored. It seems that adult surveillance is enough of an extrinsic motivator to inhibit the development of intrinsic motivation.
There are areas where children will need parental help and guidance, and we should give it to them. But we should also give them the freedom to work away from our watchful eye.
Too often, hovering leads to parents taking over the task, and children getting resentful for having been preempted. Instead of micromanaging, let them work independently, and be available for help and feedback when they ask for it.
6. Make them the Teachers
Seneca the Younger is thought to have said, “Docendo discimus,” or “By teaching, we learn.” By giving our children opportunities to teach us what they are learning, we can help them to deepen their understanding of the topics supporting their goals.
We should give children every opportunity to SHARE the knowledge they’re gaining. Even if it’s far from our area of expertise, we should sincerely engage with what they're sharing. Our questions to our children might bring up areas they never would have thought about on their own.
For example, if they're having success with their dream board, we could encourage them to teach a younger sibling how to make one. In teaching, our children can profoundly deepen their understanding of their goals and themselves.
7. Hold the Rewards, Instead Reflect Back
Social science has widely demonstrated that conditioning behavior on extrinsic rewards unrelated to the content of the activity tends to decrease intrinsic motivation. Anderson, Manoogian, and Reznick of Wake Forest University demonstrated that even something as simple as a symbolic award with a ribbon and gold star can be enough to decrease a child’s intrinsic motivation, as long as they know in advance that they’re getting it.
Rewards make goals into hurdles that must be leaped in order to get a treat. Instead of giving unrelated rewards, we should encourage our children to reflect on how the accomplishment of a goal has helped them GROW as a person. By focusing their attention on reflection, we emphasize the VALUE of the thing being accomplished.
We want our children to have the intrinsic motivation to reach for their dreams. Here are seven ways we can help develop that motivation.
1) Help them discover their passions. Teach them how to use a dream board to visualize the future.
2) Help them set goals. Use the goal ladder technique to help them plan an approach to realizing their dream.
3) Encourage independent thinking. Don't devise a plan for them; let them come up with ideas on their own.
4) Encourage collaboration. Working together strengthens the motivation to achieve a goal.
5) Don't hover. Giving your children space helps them discover their motivation.
6) Make them the teacher. Asking lots of questions and letting your children teach you the answers will deepen their understanding of their dreams.
7) Don't promise rewards; instead encourage reflection. Rewards tend to act as a motivator on their own and inhibit motivation to complete a task for its own sake.
About the Author
Timothy Fargus is a mathematician, master's degree student, committed husband, and father of three kids under four. He loves movies, TV, books, and designing healthy recipes with his wife. You can learn more about Timothy here.