Motivate Your Kids – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 37

teach play love logo

Your child has the desire to build new skills and learn new tasks from day one — but motivation is something they need to learn. And you can impact the inner workings of their brain to help them do so. In this episode, early childhood experts Rachel Robertson and Claire Goss cover strategies for inspiring motivation and the foundational steps that will set your child on the right track for becoming a happy, successful, and motivated person.

You can also listen to this podcast episode on SpotifyAppleStitcher, YouTube, and Libsyn.

More Teach. Play. Love. Episodes:

Read the full transcript

Rachel: Hey, Claire. Happy New Year.

Claire: Hey, Rachel. Happy New Year to you. I know, at the start of every new year, I hear the same thing from my friends, I see it on social media, everyone is talking about starting new habits. They want a new exercise routine, or they want to start reading more books, or they want to spend more time outdoors. And to me, all those new habits come down to one thing, which is we all need more motivation, we need to be motivated to do that.

Rachel: Yeah. So, you really think about most people don't fulfill their New Year's resolutions, right? And that has a lot to do with motivation because having the idea and setting the idea is so much easier than following through on that idea. And we can think about it in school or work, or any part of our life trying to get ourselves or someone else motivated is just something we're thinking about and trying to do a lot. But we often just blame ourselves or think we're lazy, or think someone else's lazy, but there's actually some real science here. And the science of motivation starts all the way from the start in early childhood. The brain architecture that influences motivation, is like constructing itself in infancy.

Claire: It's pretty hard to believe that it starts that early in life. But I feel like we spend a lot of time talking about brain development on this podcast, and there's a reason for it. The goal for adults, and caregivers, and parents is really to raise a highly motivated child who becomes a highly motivated adult, right? And that starts with that brain architecture in infancy, and toddlerhood, and preschool years. And parents and teachers can actually have an impact on that brain architecture.

Rachel: Yeah, exactly. So, if you think of the brain architecture, like the nature, part of that nature versus nurture, so it's not really nature versus nurture, that's your nature, and then nurture influences it. And so how we support and understand how motivation develops in someone is the nurture. So, we have a lot of impact on us as teachers or parents. I just think about my own kids, and how often I tried to motivate them when they were young. I mean, even now they're older, where, whether it's like getting them to do their chores, or get dressed for the day, or even keep their clothes on and not change into another outfit for the day, or whatever it might be, finish their meal, do their homework. We had lots of motivation issues about like, thank you notes after a birthday, whatever it may be. I'm spending so much time as a parent on trying to get my kids motivated to do something. That's one of parenting exhaustion of having to just constantly be prodding them and trying to get them to do something, and you just want them to want to do it themselves. But like we already said, there's some real brain stuff going on here. So, even though we know that we still struggled with our own kids, with this, because just because you know about it doesn't mean it doesn't bother you, but it does help you understand it.

So, let me just share this quote with you from the Center on the Developing Child, which is a resource that we use so often. "The brain systems that govern motivation are built over time starting in the earliest years of development. These intricate neural circuits and structures, which is all that stuff going on in your brain are shaped by interactions", that's that nurture part I was talking about, "between the experiences we have and the genes that we are born with." So, there's the nature and nurture rate in that sentence. "Providing children with the kinds of early life experiences that support the development of healthy balanced motivation systems is key to ensuring positive outcomes later for school, work, health, and raising the next generation." I think we're talking about it. We've already talked about it with school, work, just regular daily habits, but think about that too, with about health. Just being motivated to do things that are good for you like exercise or nutrition. Motivation is important for everything.

Claire: Absolutely. And I think there's a really common misconception that people have that you are born a motivated person or not, that some people naturally lack motivation. And that's not true. It's just not true. Everyone is born with the capacity to be a motivated person. That's good news for us as parents and as teachers, right? Educators at Bright Horizons because it means that we can influence a young child's capacity as their whole life to be a highly motivated individual. And thatwhat we want. The end of that quote is so great for school, work, health, all those things are so important. We're raising the future leaders of our world. So, let's have some highly motivated people.

Rachel: Yeah, exactly. They're going to be in charge, we want them to be motivated.

Claire: That's right. So, science shows that nature and nurture have a huge impact here on the motivation, the systems, and we can do a lot as parents and caregivers to support that capacity for motivation by providing some safe exploration for kids. I know that you want to talk a little bit more about how kids build that capacity.

Rachel: Yeah, I think something you just said was really important, and I want to come back to it first is talking about how we can influence the development of motivation versus make someone motivated? I mean, how many times do you hear someone say, I have to motivate my team, I have to motivate my kid. You can't make someone be motivated, but what you can do as a parent, or as an educator, as an adult in children's life as you can create the conditions that help them develop motivation. And, of course, they're developing these systems that are going to be immature systems that are not going to work perfectly. They don't work perfectly in ourselves. Sometimes I can't motivate myself to do the obvious things I should do on the weekend. How can I expect a four-year-old to have this down pat?

Claire: That's right.

Rachel: So, let's talk a little bit more about how we develop motivation. So, the desire to learn new skills and accomplish tasks we're born with that, we want to do those things. It can be suppressed though or encouraged. So, again, I'm going to go back to that nurture affects nature. So, we're born with it, we want to learn, we want to accomplish, we want to do good, that's just we're all born with that. And so if somebody loses that, it's probably something in nature, experiences, whatever it may be, that has affected that. We sort of built up this thinking that kids aren't naturally motivated to learn, and that we have to spend all this time bribing them and controlling them into it. And that is not true. If kids are motivated to do something, it might be because of the thing that they're being asked to do. Isn't that interesting, or that fun?

Claire: Yes. Right, or it's too hard.

Rachel: Or it's too hard, or it's too easy. There's something wrong. It's not the child that's having the problem in those situations, it might be our expectations of what they can do, or it might be what we're asking them to do. So, if we take learning, so kids love to learn through play, they love to discover, they don't like a lot of rules. And one of the things we do is put a lot of rules on learning, a lot of outcome-driven learning, not very fun in learning. I don't want to do that. Well, of course, they're not going to be motivated to do that. So, we have to give kids the space to build their own motivation and recognize this as a developing capability. And we have to make the things we want them to do more interesting to go with their natural instincts toward learning, discovery, exploration, and play. That doesn't mean every single thing is going to be fun. Like writing thank you notes after your birthday is not that fun. So, that's a separate thing. We can talk about that a little differently. That's a discrete event. You want them to do it. You want them to be motivated to be thankful. But maybe that one activity, and I'm going to come back to that as an example later when we talk about extrinsic or external motivations.

The other thing about the Center for the Developing Child, though, I want to bring up before I keep going is, and they have really been studying this topic for years, is there are two main types of motivation. There's this thing called approach motivation, and that's like, you know something, you're looking forward to something, you want that outcome, whether you're being competitive and you set a goal for yourself, or it's something you really enjoy doing, or you've been looking forward to. So, you're motivated to do the things that get you to that. Or there's avoidance motivation, and I think we can all think of what that means just by saying that is you don't want to do something, so you'll do a lot to get away from that. That's like, why I have a clean house when I have a lot of writing to do is I'm avoidance motivation. I am trying to do something else, except for the thing I don't want to sit down and do. Approach motivation is how new things are learned. We want kids to look forward to something; we want to look forward to something. And that's how people set goals for themselves and will aspire to achieve new things because they're motivated. They're naturally motivated because they want that thing to happen for them. They want to experience it. So, it could be as simple as if you have a child bounding into school because there's a project or something going on, that's approach motivation. That's fantastic. I think one thing that happens with kids a lot, even adults for avoidance motivation is thinking about like a trip to the doctor or the dentist, like, they'll do a lot not to have to do that sometimes.

Claire: That's right. Yes.

Rachel: And this can be really different for different people, too. I know you particular we have talked about temperament before, so that's part of this. Not everybody's going to be motivated by the same things, so I would say, you know, I have friends that are super motivated about social events and going to parties and that's not a motivator for me. So, we're different in that. So, something can be approach motivation for one person and avoidance motivation for another person.

Claire: Yep. And that's that nature and nurture once again colliding, right?

Rachel: Yep.

Claire: So, let's talk about some strategies. I'm a parent of a young child, and I'm interested in instilling some motivation in them. And I know now listening to you that it's that approach motivation I'm going for. I'm not going to motivate my young child by making things unpleasant and difficult.

Rachel: Exactly.

Claire: I want to focus on that approach. Motivationally, I want them to have that good neurochemical reaction to something that's happening in their life. So, how do I do that?

Rachel: Yeah, that's a good question, and there really is a science to this. So, first of all, we want to make sure that children feel both physically and psychologically safe. And that feels obvious. But you can't actually learn or do higher-order thinking skills, or those kinds of behaviors like motivation if you're worried about your basic level of safety.

Claire: That's right.

Rachel: When we think about the physical safety, that seems a little bit more obvious, but, like, if a child is hungry, that's not the time to try to get them to eat new foods, because there's a physical thing going on right there.

Claire: That's right.

Rachel: So, if there's someone who's resistant to new foods, and you want them to be motivated to try something, not when their needs aren't currently met. So, it's not like it has to be severe unmet needs, it's just in those moments, nobody should try to get you to do something new when you're tired.

Claire: Right. If you skip naptime, that's not the day to try to get your toddler to pick up all their toys, anyway.

Rachel: Exactly, yeah. So pick your moment, pick your moment, for sure. And that psychological safety is important too. So, especially if you're someone who really is motivated by trying new things as a parent and your child isn't that way, if you're really pressuring them to try something new, especially if it's public, especially if it's a time of need, they won't feel safe in that moment. So, they'll try to protect themselves, and they'll be more resistant to trying something new.

Claire: That's right.

Rachel: So, when kids drag their heels because this is sort of like emotions dressed up as, so they might be stressed, they might be scared, they might be worried, and it looks like defiance, but it probably means a whole bunch of other things. So, pay attention to that and think of that as behaviors, communication is telling you, they're not ready, it's not the time to try it, maybe it's too big of a goal, maybe it feels too scary. Something's threatening them in that moment.

Claire: So, earlier you mentioned, I heard you mentioned the word intrinsic motivation, that term. And I know we've talked about this as colleagues before, because we try to motivate ourselves to do those big projects, and get things done efficiently, and also, we want to make things enjoyable at work. So, let's apply that extrinsic and intrinsic, can you tell me a little bit more about those terms?

Rachel: Yeah. So, intrinsic, sometimes it's a tricky word to say, so you can say internal motivation also. And that's just really coming from within. You want it for yourself. You've set a goal. It's important to you. It's related to your values, something you're trying to achieve yourself. And we are all naturally internally motivated. And we override that sometimes without meaning to as parents and educators, or society, but we should really believe and use that internal motivation the most. So, figuring out what someone wants for themselves and attaching things to those internal motivations, those two internal goals will be your best bet for getting something done. So, if a child is really excited about feeling older, is like a lot of times like I'm a big girl. And so could you attach something to that? Maybe those thank you notes or that gratitude or something could be about that? Or are they motivated because they want to be the best at something, or they see themselves as really strong at something, and how can you help them make those attachments? That helps with adults too. But that's how you can help children sort of scaffold their own internal motivation and help them connect it to an internal goal that they have. They need adults' help to help them do that.

And then extrinsic motivation or external motivation, or all those rewards, those reward charts, or stickers, or I'll buy you this if you just behave in Target. I'll get you a toy. I promise. Any of that, that's external motivation. And that can override internal motivation. So, there's tons of studies that as soon as you put external motivation on something, people stop doing it for the internal reason and they start doing it for the external reason. So, if you, for example, say I'll give you, you know, $10 to do this, if they were already maybe going to do it for an internal motivation reason, suddenly, it's about that $10. So, you've taken away that motivation. So, the time that external motivation can work, because there are some times it works is if we just need to do this today. It's not a long-term behavior I'm trying to build, it's not anything to do with our big goals for you or your big goals for yourself. We just need to do this and we need to get through it. So, there's times that can help, external motivation can help for that. And there's also to get something started. So, you don't want to have an expectation of that external motivation, but if you need to get something started, and if it's inconsistently rewarded, so the motivation external thing isn't happening all the time.

Claire: So, dependent on that every single time.

Rachel: So, maybe it's like learning to go to bed on your own or only two stories at night, and, you know, for the first week if you do this, this is how we'll do this. There will be some sort of reward, and then it won't happen after that. And then you're working towards that. But I think any parent listening to this can think of a time that they gave a reward or a sticker and it turned out to backfire. And that is why.

Claire: That's right. People lean on those external rewards with their children because it works in the short-term. It's incredibly effective, briefly.

Rachel: Briefly. Yeah.

Claire: And so you feel like it's a victory, you feel like, "Oh, I did it. I finally got them to use the toilet, or I finally got them to go to bed on their own." And then guess what happens? A week or two later, I get another call from a family saying, you know what? I don't know why this isn't worth, M&Ms aren't working anymore on the toilet. And there's a reason for that. It's because they're necessarily doing things freely, because, like you said, they're not internally motivated anymore. And if they begin to do it because they know that reward is coming, and if it's not presented every single time, and sometimes they need the reward to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger. And that's not necessarily sustainable.

Rachel: And they'll say things like, that's not fair, I didn't get it. So, it all becomes about that reward.

Claire: That's right.

Rachel: And then it goes with them as they get older, too. So, then they start looking for grades, the grade is their reward. I'm only in this class to get the grade. I'm not here to learn, I'm here to get the grade, and I'm here to get the win. And it just keeps trickling, and it overrides that internal motivation. And it's very unsatisfying and doesn't feel good as a human to be just driven by external reward. So, we don't want that for our kids, and we can help influence that from the start.

Claire: Yeah, we have to look for ways to harness our kid's natural curiosity, and natural interest in things to get them to stay motivated. So, that's where that growth mindset becomes really important. We've talked about that before, we'll talk about it again, that's where you're praising your child for their effort in things, not necessarily the outcome. So, if you think about your toddler on the toilet, if they try to use the toilet and they don't, you don't say, "Oh, you did a terrible job." You say, "Oh, you tried, and you pulled your pants up by yourself. I'm so proud of how hard you tried." And that's where they then they start to feel that's the motivation is, I can do this myself. I am becoming a bigger kid. And that becomes a preschooler who's able to do it on their own. So, it really is all about finding that natural interest and curiosity for young kids. Asking them to set personal goals is a great way to do that. So, you know they're going to try something out, and it's not gonna be perfect the first time. So, you'll find a manageable goal for them so they can feel that they've accomplished something, and that's a really great way to foster motivation, too.

Yeah, especially when there is... sometimes a school will put some external motivation on something and you as a parent are stuck in that cycle or situation, or a coach, or something else will happen. And so you can override that by saying, "Hey, what are your goals here? What's your personal goal in this situation? What do you want to achieve?" And then move the focus on to that. I know, I said, I'd come back to the Thank You card example. And so this is one sometimes I used external motivation for because this one thing we're going to do once a year, I want you to be a thankful, grateful child that we're going to do differently. This actually note card writing, we can just... you know, this is just kind of the thing we have to get through because it's the right thing to do. And now my kids laugh about it, and they pick out thank you cards at the store, because they know I'm about to tell them. So, somehow we've built that habit, but it was a tough one over the years. But I think that, you know, just really being mindful of when you use those external rewards and understand what you're doing.

So, it's in that moment, yes, it might be the right choice, or it might be a choice that's getting in the way of really building the skills that you want to build for life. Because this is all bigger, and more complex life skills are part of this. So, we start with motivation, but self-determination, being self-driven, having agency as a learner, those all required to have a good internal motivation compass. So, we need those for the long-term. This is what we really, really want for our children. When we say we want them to be happy, and healthy, and successful, this is part of what gets them there. So, ensuring you support that natural motivation, of course, give grace for that natural lack of motivation, don't accidentally replace intrinsic motivation for extrinsic. So, no replacing internal motivation for external. These are the important foundational steps. So, you're going to set these so your children develop the skills they need to be people who set goals, make plans, work toward them, adjust them, of course, if they make mistakes, and they need to learn from those mistakes, adjust their plans and goals and be okay with that, and then achieve them in school, work, and life.

Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
teach play love logo