Motivation Matters

For several months, we’ve been focusing on the social and emotional development of our youngest children.

We’ve spotlighted some of the touchstones in positive development – attachment, self-control, self-discipline, and curiosity – and the foundation for it – caring, nurturing, and responsive parenting.

So, as a parent, grandparent, or caregiver, how can you tell that you have done your job well? One good barometer is how motivated your child is.

There is no question that children in the first years of their lives learn from everything they do. Just as important, they’re developing attitudes toward learning that will last a lifetime. Motivation is a key part of this process.

What Motivates Children?

Children do some things – like picking out clothes to wear or a toy to play with – because they want to. It’s called intrinsic motivation, because a child makes his own choice and finds satisfaction in doing it. There is also extrinsic motivation, which is when a child does something because adults tell him to do it and he wants to please them or receive a promised reward.

Children learn more from intrinsic motivation because such learning is rewarding in and of itself. As a result, they retain that learning better. Parents and caregivers can build on this motivation by guiding children’s play and activities with a range of options. Children without motivation often seem quiet and bored, but motivated children take pleasure in their activity.

Kids learn more when they are motivated by curiosity! Tweet this!

A telling sign of success in promoting motivation is when a child stays with a task for a reasonably long period of time. A highly motivated child will stick to the task at hand while an unmotivated one will give up easily if he is not immediately successful. The goal for parents and caregivers is to give a child a range of choices that are challenging but not overwhelming.

Children who are successful in meeting one challenge are soon motivated to try a more difficult one, and when they succeed at that, they look for an even harder one. They’re learning that new skills and the satisfaction that comes with them are their own reward.

Unmotivated children pick something easy, which delivers only a low level of satisfaction. Parents and caregivers can help by suggesting appropriate challenges and allowing the child to choose between them.

Early Motivation Supports a Lifetime Love of Learning

Another indicator of motivation is when a child doesn’t need an adult constantly watching or helping. Children with low levels of motivation want constant attention and find it difficult to function independently. Independence and motivation are important aspects of school readiness, and often, the best toys and games are the ones that allow children to follow their own imagination rather than depending on an adult to explain or entertain.

Often, when finished, children will look to adults for approval. This can be an opportunity to ask them what they think. It gives a child the opportunity to evaluate what she has done for herself. Along those same lines, adults should resist the temptation of constant rewards; they can undermine a child’s ability to value herself. When you praise your child, make sure it’s more about her motivation, effort, and determination than the specific accomplishment.

One of the best things about being a parent or a caregiver is that it gives us a chance to see the world through a child’s eyes and to see it for the incredible place that it is. Allow your child to discover it for himself—with new experiences he chooses and without unnecessary external rewards. It’s his feelings of accomplishment that matter most, and the motivation that he demonstrates early in life can be a behavior that sets the stage for all future learning.

There’s no greater gift that we can give our children than that.