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How to Encourage Self-Motivation in Your Child

Posted 9/16/2016 by UHBlog

Does your child need help learning how to do what needs to be done? Talk to us about how to develop self-motivation.

Encourage Self-Motivation in Your Child

Most children start out life with a surplus of self-motivation. Have you ever witnessed a toddler's insistence on picking out their own – often mismatched – clothes? But as children enter grade school, where students’ efforts are often given numerical grades, self-motivation and confidence can start to wane, says psychologist Luis Felipe Amunategui, PhD.

“When we begin to emphasize achievement or the product of work over the effort and the process, we start making things more difficult for kids to maintain their curiosity,” Dr. Amunategui says.

According to Dr. Amunategui, experiencing personal successes is partly what fuels a child’s self-motivation. When they feel they have failed or that their efforts aren’t good enough, they are less likely to want to take on new tasks – and may even start avoiding them.

Parents can play a pivotal role in strengthening their children’s self-motivational muscles by complimenting their efforts, rather than simply their results.

“Praise is the biggest incentive for a child to do work,” he says.

Dr. Amunategui offers five tips to help raise a self-motivated child, including:

  1. Figure out the source of your child’s resistance to work. When you catch your child playing video games or watching the second season of "Gilmore Girls" instead of finishing their homework, it’s easy to assume that they’re just being lazy. But it might be that they’re frustrated and don’t know how to figure out the long division problem they’ve been assigned.
    “Sometimes, there’s a deficit of knowledge that needs to be addressed,” says Dr. Amunategui.
    Or else they might just need a break.
    “Keep in mind your child is not a little adult,” he says. “Sitting and doing homework for an hour is not an easy task.”
    You can only get your child the help they might need by first understanding what’s holding them back. And sometimes the thing you see as the problem – TV, for instance – might be the tool your child needs to keep on trekking.
  2. Leave the helicoptering for certified pilots. When your child is floundering, your natural instinct might be to step in and smooth out the situation. But calling a teacher constantly to complain about grades, for instance, does nothing to build your child’s confidence.
    “It gets to a point where the child is used to using the parent’s brain for everything,” Dr. Amunategui says. “And when unforeseen disappointments come up, they’re stumped about how to deal with them.”
    Instead, you’ll help them more by listening sympathetically to their problems, then helping them brainstorm solutions themselves.
  3. Rethink rewards. Nothing kills motivation and creativity like a bribe. Studies have shown that left to their own devices, kids will spontaneously draw any number of loosely drawn pictures of sunsets or trees or squiggles. But dropping money into the situation changes the entire equation.
    “When researchers started giving kids tokens for each drawing they complete, their entire effort went toward getting that reward, and the quality and originality of the work went down,” Dr. Amunategui says.
    The best way to motivate your child, he says, is with compliments, such as verbal praise and encouragement, not financial incentives.
  4. Don’t nag. Kids hate hearing it almost as much as you hate doing it.
    “Nagging builds resentment and it creates dependency on the nagger,” says Dr. Amunategui. “Your child thinks, ‘Why should I remember anything, when I have someone who will do it for me?'”
    It's better to trust your child to finish a task themselves, and make sure there is enough time built into their schedule to allow for the work to be finished. If it’s still not done after that, Dr. Amunategui advises using what he calls the “when/then approach” with them, offering up a non-financial incentive to get them to finish.
    “Tell them when you study for your homework, then you can go play outside with your friends,” he says.
  5. Don’t compare your child to his or her sibling. Every child moves along their own trajectory. Comparing one sibling’s skills and traits to another only breeds animosity, not motivation. Besides, a 5-year-old doesn’t have the skills or abilities of a 7-year-old, no matter how much he or she may try to mimic and keep up with their older sibling.

Luis Felipe Amunategui, PhD is a child and adolescent psychologist and associate program director, Child Psychiatry at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Amunategui or any other doctor online.

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