Parents often tire of prodding kids to start moving. They ask the question, “How can I get my child to do things on his own without me having to push him along?” The answer is to build internal motivation, but that can be complicated, especially when a child is weak in this area. Some parents just try to get through the day, hoping that their child will grow up someday.
Adulthood, in part, is about being responsible enough to clean up messes, get work done, and be where you need to be on time. Unfortunately, we all know adults who are irresponsible and who lack internal motivation. The work we do in the elementary years can strengthen the heart and prepare children with the tools they need to be responsible, internally-motivated adults someday. It starts with the way we work with children on a daily basis.
How You Talk is Important
Much of the building of internal motivation starts with the words of the parent. In many ways, the words of parents form the scripts that children say to themselves. As you consider why a task should be done, think about the internal rewards. You might say, “Finish your homework. You can then feel good about being responsible.” Or, “Cleaning up your mess helps build the quality of neatness in your life.”
“That’s not going to work on my son,” said one mom. “He’s still not going to do what I asked him to do. I need some kind of motivation to get him to complete the task.” And that’s true for most children. But if your goal is to help kids do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, then you’ll want to be careful about an “external motivation” approach. You still might offer a privilege when a child is responsible, privilege and responsibility go together, but be sure to talk about internal motivation in the process. “You finished cleaning your room. Great. Yes, you can go out and play. Doesn’t it feel good to have a clean room? Look how nice it looks. You’re growing up.”
It’s not necessary to avoid all external motivation, but use it to build internal motivation in your child. Internal motivation makes a child feel uncomfortable on the inside when a task isn’t finished or a job needs to be done. It helps children take initiative by seeing what needs to be done and doing it. Most children don’t naturally develop internal motivation. It comes through training.
Another way to build internal motivation is to transfer responsibility to the child. Many parents continue their prompting far beyond what is developmentally appropriate. If your child is struggling in this area of internal motivation, you might want to try a different approach by asking the child to develop the plan for remembering to put his homework in his backpack or clean his room a little at a time.
You might say, “Putting your homework in your backpack is the last step of completing the task. What’s your plan to remember to do that?” You can then evaluate the child’s plan. He might decide to put his backpack by the door as a demonstration that all is complete. Allowing him to develop the plan gives your son ownership of the plan and allows you to hold him accountable to that plan. Instead of saying, “Did you put your homework in your backpack?” you may move a step toward internal motivation by saying, “Did you work your plan?”
Keep in mind that internal motivation often takes place through accountability and new patterns. It also takes place through vision, kids with challenges need a vision. Children often change when they get a vision for living a new way or when they feel uncomfortable living the old way. For example, your daughter may choose to put her shoes at the foot of her bed each day because she has a vision for being more neat or she may choose to do the same thing because she gets tired of losing those shoes and having to hunt all over the house for them. Either way, your daughter has made an internal choice to live differently.
Parents can help by instilling vision and by making life uncomfortable sometimes. As you make those decisions, think strategically about building internal motivation. You might say something like, “One of the signs of maturity is that you do things right away instead of putting them off. When you put your shoes at the foot of your bed even though it’s inconvenient, you’re demonstrating self-discipline, one of the traits of growing up.” Then, the next time your daughter takes off her shoes you might say, “Think about maturity,” or “Time to practice self-discipline.” The way you remind your child then focuses on internal motivation instead of teaching your child to always rely on you.
Kids who lack self-control often need more parental control, so don’t fall into the trap of saying something like, “Fine, he can just live in a pig pen until he gets sick of it.” Unmotivated kids often develop beliefs that they are just messy people, or failures at school, or don’t have what it takes to be successful. Your efforts teach children that they do have what it takes but developing character requires work.
The book of Nehemiah is about a job that needs to get done, building the wall around Jerusalem. Chapter 4, verse 6 describes the internal motivation of the workers. It says, “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.” That’s the same kind of internal motivation we want to develop in our kids. Telling them that Bible story may be a helpful illustration for their growing maturity.
Listen to Dr Turansky’s podcast on Teaching Kids initiative.