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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Larson

How Do You Motivate Your Kids?

Updated: Jul 30, 2022

This week I stumbled across an article on student motivation titled How to Motivate Students to Actually Do Homework and Reading. It was written as a teaching advice column in one of the edtech journals I subscribe to weekly, and while I have no experience as a K12 teacher, I found myself drawn in.

I immediately started applying the principles recommended to teachers to my own parenting style. Because let’s face it, finding ways to motivate kids to do their schoolwork is just one of our daily challenges. As a parent, I’m constantly looking for ways to motivate my kids to pick up their rooms, make healthier food choices, limit their screen time and more. Some days the list feels endless and it can be exhausting.

So I dove into the research a little more, and also reflected a bit on the styles of my own four children. And here’s what I discovered.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Defined

Most of the research which looks at the factors that impact motivation puts them into two categories. The American Psychological Association provides these definitions:

  • Extrinsic motivation - an external incentive to engage in a specific activity, especially motivation arising from the expectation of punishment or reward (e.g., completing a disliked chore in exchange for payment).

  • Intrinsic motivation - an incentive to engage in a specific activity that derives from pleasure in the activity itself (e.g., a genuine interest in a subject studied) rather than because of any external benefits that might be obtained (e.g., money, course credits).

Take a look at our schools today. Most of them rely pretty heavily on extrinsic motivators like grades, test scores, academic awards and college acceptances. Almost everything our kids do at school comes with a possible reward or recognition at the end.

Consider that for a moment.

As our kids move through their K12 journey, we have basically taught them to seek out experiences that provide them with an extrinsic reward. No wonder it’s so difficult to get them to read or do pre-class work if it’s not “for a grade”!

What Motivates Your Kids?

As I read this article I caught myself reflecting on my own four children and what I believe motivates them. My conclusion - they are all so different! And my youngest two, as I’ll highlight below, are the complete opposite of each other. Never a dull moment!

Our youngest kid is highly motivated by extrinsic rewards, and this has been obvious since he was a toddler. It almost makes it easier to motivate him. All we have to do is offer him something (almost anything) in return for a task, and he’s all in.

He’s competitive. He wants the reward. And I’ll never forget his first cross country race in second grade. He participated in an after school running club. He was so excited for his first race. He ran his little tail off and took first place for his age group. But this was the kind of event where everyone got a ribbon. He was so confused. And I’ll always remember him looking up at me and asking, “Why did I run so hard if everyone got the same prize?”

Another one of our kids is the complete opposite. He is highly motivated by intrinsic rewards, and quite frankly not something we immediately identified as his parents. Disciplining him as a young child was a challenge. The standard “time out,” or “take this away” strategy for discipline didn’t work for him. I can’t begin to count the number of times my husband and I asked ourselves - “How do we handle this? What do we say? How do we get him to understand?”

Motivating him at school is different too. This year, one of his teachers made the comment (and I’m paraphrasing based on how he told the story) - “You’re not learning as a means to an end. You’re learning for the sake of learning.”

Thankfully, this kid totally gets it. That’s all he needed to hear to be motivated to do the work for that class and also name that teacher as his favorite of the year. Side note - if our youngest had heard this from one of his teachers, he probably would have looked at him like he was crazy!

Join the Discussion

I expect you’re wondering, so exactly how do I motivate my kids? The answer is - it depends. While much of the research shows that we need a combination of both extrinsic and intrinsic factors, we must also recognize there are kids which fall heavily into one camp or the other.

We’d love to hear from you! What strategies do you use to motivate your kids at home?

About the Author

Jennifer Larson is an entrepreneur, charter school founder and mother to four children. Connect with her @startupjen.

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