Long-Term Benefits of Raising Intrinsically Motivated Kids When a child is intrinsically motivated, they are more apt to succeed in the long haul

Kids who are intrinsically motivated have a greater chance of reaching goals and succeeding.

Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes internally driven people as having autotelic personalities. They have a tendency to engage in an activity for its own sake. Furthermore, they may be naturally prone to flow states where creativity and innovation blossom.

As the word, ‘intrinsic’ implies being inwardly inspired to do something. The fact is, all of us are genetically programmed to meet our innate needs of survival and growth.

When a child cries it is intrinsically motivated to cry for food or comfort and when satiated he will pursue his inner desire for curious exploration. We see this kind of curiosity, playfulness, and inquisitiveness emerge spontaneously in children from birth.

Long-Term Benefits of Raising Intrinsically Motivated Kids
Intrinsic motivation is what helps a child become proficient performers

Bestselling author, Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, reveals the three elements of true motivation: Autonomy– the desire to direct our own lives; Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters; Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Unfortunately, this internal guiding compass of a child is thwarted and suppressed. Parents/society have their own agenda and vision of how a child needs to be conditioned in order to succeed. True, one needs to get along in the world. However, totally annihilating their authentic selves for extrinsic benefit, no way nurtures the mental well-being of a child.

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Psychologists Richard Ryan, and Edward Deci, developed the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation.  It upended the predominant belief that extrinsic rewards are the best way to reinforce human beings to perform tasks.

According to their research, intrinsic motivation is what pushes people to do and sustain doing things/tasks in the long term:

A natural inclination toward assimilation, mastery, spontaneous interest, and exploration is so essential to cognitive and social development and that represents a principal source of enjoyment and vitality throughout life.

The cardinal rule of intrinsic motivation is a sense of inner satisfaction. You enjoy what you are doing, it is fun, it drives your dopamine and serotonin level. You feel a sense of competence, accomplishment, belonging,  sense of meaning.

Intrinsic motivation is closely related to a  growth mindset —your brain’s unlimited potential for growth, flexibility, and learning.

The Damaging Effects of Extrinsic Motivation

According to Deci, extrinsic motivation of rewards and punishments makes us feel controlled. Though there may be some temporary spike in motivation with rewards, that will be brief, When the reward is removed, the drive is gone. Or worse one can only perform when there is an external incentive.  Which is a bad thing, considering achievement and success happen through persistent pushing towards a goal without immediate benefits.

Sadly, most of us as we grow up are forced to do things with the lure of extrinsic rewards. We are told if we do what our parents want we will achieve success and happiness. And, slowly, we forget about listening to our inner voice and allow ourselves to be blindly led.  We do things we hate just in the hope of gaining the rewards of fame and fortune.

However, this does not bode well in the long run. Not doing what you truly enjoy eventually will lead to unhappiness and ill-health. There is only so much one can fool ourselves.

How does one raise kids who are intrinsically motivated?

Nonetheless, it definitely does not mean that you allow your child to just do what they want. Particularly, in this day and age of electronic seductions. It takes understanding and skill to prod a child into doing things that may not seem enticing at the moment but is vital to his development.

However, intrinsic motivation does not just happen. It entails nurturing your child’s innate uniqueness.

1) Loving and Valuing Their Uniqueness

For a child to develop healthy and accurate self-esteem, they need the unconditional positive regard of their parents/caregivers. To know that they are loved in spite of their faults and are respected despite their differences. They don’t have to pretend or be caricatures and hide their true selves just so they will be accepted.

Being securely attached is the cornerstone of a child’s mental health and an indisputable factor in their success. Our love should totally encompass them in a closed-loop system that is self-regulating. They are so secure in who they are that they are not disturbed by the outside negativity. They feel free to pursue things that truly interest them without fear of judgment or failure.

2) Don’t Rush Things – Give Them Space

Good enough parenting is all about not being intrusive. You have to be attuned to their needs and respect their autonomy. Non-interference and enough space to explore and make mistakes.

There is no need to prematurely push a child into activities. Sure, introduce them to varied experiences but resist pushing them too fast and too hard. Don’t hurry learning and development. Even Einstein was a slow learner and credits his theory of relativity to his slowness.

Neuroscience shows blocks of non-time have a profound effect on our thinking and creativity.

3) Truly Know and Understand Them

One very important parenting skill is understanding your child’s temperament.  How he/she experiences and reacts to the world. What they enjoy doing and what they don’t. Do they like solitary activities or are do they prefer extroverted pursuits.

You cannot force a child to join a Maths club or to play a certain sport or which they dislike. It does nothing for his/her self-esteem rather it diminishes it. They may initially comply but will grow up being resentful and unhappy adults.

Nurture your child’s uniqueness by positive encouragement do not kill his spirit by forcing him/her into submission.

Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps’ mom cautions parents, ‘Don’t push’ kids into sports.”  Children have to do what they enjoy. You have to let your kids find what’s best for them and what their own niche is.”

4) Praise The Effort Not The Person

We have been incorrectly misled into believing that praising our kids increases self-esteem which translates into adult success.

But current research suggests otherwise — over the past decade, a number of studies on self-esteem have come to the conclusion that praising a child as ‘clever’, ‘exceptional’ does not help him/her at school. Nor does it help self-esteem in the long run.

A child’s brain gets addicted to the praise-high and can only perform when they get this after every little task. Remember, you are not always going to be around to give your darling his/her regular praise-fix.

5) Carrot and Stick Dilemma – Rewards and Punishments

The mainstay of parenting has been psychologists, B. F. Skinner’s behavioral model of reward and punishment. If good behavior is rewarded, it will be repeated. If we punish bad behavior, it will cease.

As with punishments, the offer of rewards can elicit temporary compliance in many cases. Doing something /or not doing something just to please your parents does not lead to long-term happiness. Eventually one will hate their job and their life.

Do offer a reward/praise sometimes but do so with wisdom. Like when a child cleans up just a simple, ‘that looks really neat’  should suffice. Don’t offer monetary incentives for doing chores around the house.

More importantly, never threaten with dire consequences, if something is not done. Ask them why and give them choices, ‘when are you more comfortable cleaning the yard on Saturday or Sunday.’ That feeling of autonomy is key to feeling intrinsically motivated.

Punishments and rewards are forms of control. They only teach children that they are loved only when they obey or impress us.

6) Front-loading – Possibility of Outcomes

Practice the parenting technique front-loading, where you redirect difficult or undesirable behavior. Discuss unproductive/negative behavior effects and outcomes. If they do something, what could be the possible outcomes.

Be clear in communicating the consequences of certain actions and behaviors.

If they keep practicing the guitar, maybe it could lead to a professional musician, or it could be a source of gaining social acceptance.  List the benefits of doing something. Prod, cajole to a certain extent but eventually, let your child decide whether or not they want to pursue something.

No one likes to be controlled – give them the autonomy to make their own decisions. Only then will they be intrinsically motivated which is far better than blanket external extortions.

7) Reframe Failure As Learning

Reframe failure as a stepping stone to success. Don’t berate your child when they fail or don’t reach their goal. Most kids are born with that innate drive to keep on doing things even when they fall down. However, environmental conditioning makes failing a very scary prospect.  The fear of ridicule becomes stronger as we grow older.

React to your child’s failure as though it’s something that will enhance his learning. Thomas A. Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Failing first teaches you what you don’t know and then helps you learn.

Don’t make failure a big issue just to prove your point. The skill of a parent is knowing how to re-frame and re-direct setbacks. Focus on the positives and let the child decide if this is worth pursuing or scrapping it.

8) Criticism Vs Feedback

Don’t arbitrarily dole out criticism just because you feel you know better or you don’t like what the child is doing.

I remember when my brother began a mini-terrace garden growing veggies. Despite having a pretty good yield my father the know-all let out the critic monster. He’d constantly attacked my brother’s methods and skill. Eventually, one day my brother just stopped doing it. I don’t know what difference just a little positive feedback would have done to nurture my brother’s inherent love for gardening. But the criticism sure contributed to him turning into an angry adult.

Criticism points out the problem without providing or suggesting a practical, workable solution. Feedback focuses on recognizing the problem and then finding ways to resolve issues, correct problems, and move forward.

9) Don’t Over-focus – Allow Choices

Just because your child is good at dancing doesn’t mean they will eventually become a successful dancer. Don’t overfocus on one attribute while excluding other activities. Eventually, what was once fun will become drudgery.

For too long, it was believed that starting early, specializing soon, narrowing your focus, is the way to succeed. However, author, David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, has debunked this theory. According to him, generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.

In this groundbreaking book, Epstein shows that the way to excel is to sample widely, gain a breadth of experiences, take detours, and experiment relentlessly.

Intrinsic Motivation – Autonomy and Enjoyment

Real happiness comes from doing what we love and enjoy. There is nothing better than earning our living from work that feels intrinsically rewarding.

Parenting is the art of nurturing our child’s innate preferences and allowing them autonomy to follow their heart.  Give them guidance, give them the opportunities, and most give them your loving acceptance.

We have to abandon the earlier belief that rewards/punishment are the way to motivate children. They only lead to obedient puppy-like behavior called operant conditioning.- remember Pavlov’s dogs. They will do things only when there is a reward and then when tough times come on, they will sink into depression.

We are all born in order to fulfill our own destiny. As a parent, you need to understand and nurture your child’s inner calling and help him/her find his/her own version of success and happiness

Remember, what the sage-poet Kahlil Gibran said about children:

Your children are not your children.
     They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.


Image Source: Pixabay

Further Reading:

Mind in the Making – Ellen Galinsky

The Hurried Child David Elkind  

Free to LearnPeter Gray  

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