Inside: 5 practical tips for raising kids with high intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the ability to be a self-starter and someone who perseveres even when things get tough. These are life skills we can encourage in our kids, despite the oversaturation of external reward systems and behavior charts.
My son was first introduced to color-coded behavior charts in school. Behavior charts or chore charts was never something I did at home because I wanted my son to develop the will to want to be helpful, to want to contribute, to want to work hard — to be intrinsically motivated.
Behavior charts in school were a rude wake-up call for both of us. There is quite a bit of research that shows how external reward systems undermine a child’s self-generated motivation to learn, to do well, and to try again.
However, there is other research that shows how this effect has been overstated. Most likely, it depends on the context. I have actually seen teachers who do this really well and it works for them, and I have seen when it doesn’t work as well too.
While the research is unclear, it is clear that our culture has an over-reliance on external rewards, behavior charts, prizes, etc. We need to balance that message with the one that doing good feels good — just in and of itself. That a sense of accomplishment is rewarding just for what it is.
This is related to growth mindset — the idea that our abilities are not set in stone and that we can learn from mistakes — but it is more than a growth mindset. It is a certain quality of mental strength otherwise known as cognitive hardiness.
Research suggests that there are several aspects that make up the personality trait psychologists call cognitive hardiness. People with cognitive hardiness believe in themselves and their ability to make a difference in the world around them, they are intrinsically motivated to work hard to try again, and they view failure or challenge as a chance to grow and learn.
Cognitive hardiness is something we all want to foster in our kids.
We want our kids to want to do well because it feels good to do well. Not because it is a certain color, a competition, or a reward.
We want our kids to have a sense of pride of accomplishment, whether its academics or behavior.
We want them to understand that everyone has bad days and makes mistakes.
We want our kids to be able to get back up when they are knocked down, to try again, and persevere.
We want our kids to believe in themselves and to be confident in their abilities. Those traits — that deep confidence goes right along with intrinsic motivation.
5 Tips For Raising Kids With Intrinsic Motivation and Cognitive Hardiness
1. Make Room For Mistakes
It is important for children to not see failure as an endpoint, but rather as a beginning. A place from which to grow.
Viewing challenge ( e.g. failure, frustration, disappointment, hard times, obstacles) as an opportunity to learn, grow and become a stronger person, is a key part of having cognitive hardiness. Not only to survive stress or challenge but to thrive.
One study found that when children were angry (as opposed to happy or sad), they were more likely to use innovative and out of the box problem-solving strategies when faced with a challenging problem.
Negative emotions, especially frustration and anger, may serve to fuel motivation to accomplish, to persevere.
When your child is frustrated and wants to give up, encourage them to try again. To reset, have a do-over, rewind, to give it another go.
This is true when your child is upset as well — not just working on a tower of Legos. But when they make a mistake behaviorally — they act out or act impulsively to another child. After repairing the situation, have a do-over, “let’s try taking turns with that toy again.”
Being able to learn from your own mistakes, maybe even laugh at yourself, whether these mistakes happen in your work-life or social-life is a priceless life-skill.
“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”
― Carol S. Dweck, Developmental Psychologist
Researchers have found that adults with cognitive hardiness have less cardiovascular responsiveness to stress, better overall health, better mental well-being and are more likely to be transformational leaders.
2. Recognize When They Work Hard
When your child really tries — works hard at something and puts in a lot of effort — recognize it. When they show that they are intrinsically motivated, comment on it so the begin to recognize how they feel when they accomplish something.
“Wow, I love this picture you drew for me! I can tell you really worked hard on it!”
Also, recognize when they themselves are proud. “I can see you are really proud of that story you wrote. You know why you are proud? Because you worked so hard on it! I am proud of you too.”
Young children think in a fixed mindset. They don’t naturally assume things can or will change. So, if you usually say things like, “you are so smart!” or “you are so good at math!” They will think that is just how they are. That it is their innate ability that is why they are good at math.
Then one day, they will get a math problem that doesn’t come easily to them. And they will believe that they just don’t have the ability to solve the math problem and they will give up without putting in much effort.
If, on the other hand, you consistently comment on how hard they work and their effort, they will believe that they did well on the math because they worked at it. So, when they face that more challenging math problem, they will put in a lot of effort instead of giving up easily.
But it isn’t just praising effort — instead, it is about helping your child reflect on how they feel when they work hard at something.
They will believe that with some effort, maybe a lot of effort, that they can solve the problem. They will have the belief that they can do it. That is a big part of intrinsic motivation.
And, if it’s hard and they fail, they will try again, which is cognitive hardiness.
This is also related to having a growth mindset.
In a study where parents praised effort (and not inherent characteristics/ability) at 14-38 months of age, their children were more likely to believe their ability was changeable, enjoy challenges, figure out ways to improve and attribute their success to hard work when they were 7 to 8 years old!
“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
― Peggy O’Mara
Give your child the gift of an inner voice that praises perseverance, hard work, and fosters their inner-belief that they can do it.
3. Break Down Big Goals into Smaller Steps
Sometimes, failure will happen over and over again. This is when kids need extra encouragement to be intrinsically motivated to accomplish something and not give up.
The best way to help your kids learn this is to break down the goal — and recognize their progress.
Today we are going to ride from our house to that mailbox on your bike.
This time, we are going to try one new food.
Today we will learn the first 5 sight words.
Learning to break down goals into manageable steps is a key life skill. I remember a psychology professor once said, don’t set yourself up for failure by setting huge goals. Just set a goal for today. I will exercise today. Maybe I will tomorrow, maybe not — but I will today.
Setting small goals is how we build habits. It is also how we can teach our kids the importance of practicing and how we can give them the courage to try the really hard things again and again.
4. Celebrate Successes
Research shows that when praise is deeply sincere that it is beneficial for children’s intrinsic motivation.
Praise has received a lot of bad press — and it is true that praising innate ability or over-praising is problematic.
But sincere and specific praise can enhance the pride a child has naturally:
“It was so kind of you to give your friend a turn with your toy. You had so much fun with her!”
“I am so glad you peed in the potty! Do you feel happy and proud? Let’s do a happy dance!”
“Wow, I love this drawing you did! I can see you really worked hard on it. I am going to hang in up in my office!”
As a parent, you want to enjoy and share in your child’s successes and that is what we should do!
But instead of focusing on the person or even the behavior, focus on their feelings (and your feelings) of internal joy.
That ultimately is what is truly rewarding. And your child is happy when you are proud. This help builds their own intrinsic motivation.
Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort. — Franklin D. Roosevelt
Help them to recognize those feelings of pride, happiness, and satisfaction that come with hard work, good play, and trying at something over and over again.
5. Foster a Sense of Gratitude
Recent research shows that practicing gratitude on a regular basis can increase focus in school and also help students be resilient when facing difficulties in learning.
On your child’s worst days, help them see the silver lining or also see something that they can be thankful for. Seeing the good in the world, even when times are tough helps kids remain optimistic. This helps strengthen their beliefs that they can do good in the world, a hallmark of cognitive hardiness.
At the very least gratitude can help your child think about problems in a new way and boost their mood. Encouraging them to be motivated to try to solve the problem again — to have the intrinsic motivation to overcome.
Perseverance, trying, again and again, is fueled in equal parts by frustration, hope, and optimism. It is being grateful that can bolster that hope and optimism at times when frustration threatens to take over and kids want to give up.
The best way to develop a sense of gratitude in your kids is to start a practice together. This could be as easy as sharing around the dinner table something each member of the family is grateful for, starting a gratitude wall (see an example in this post), or starting a gratitude journal with your kids.
Here are some prompts that could use for any of these activities:
What are you Thankful For Today?
How did someone help you today?
Who do you want to thank today?
What are you proud of?
Books On Growth Mindset, Perseverance, and Intrinsic Motivation
If you have followed my blog for a while, you know I love using books to teach children about emotions, behaviors, and other life lessons. Here are some of our favorite books about having intrinsic motivation, perseverance, and a growth mindset.
For some more book recommendations check out this post: Books that Help Kids to Be Brave, Bounce Back, and Build Resilience
Big Life Journal: Growth Mindset for Kids 7 to 10I’m Fun, Too!I Can’t Do That, YET: Growth MindsetThe Girl Who Never Made MistakesThe Most Magnificent ThingThe Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple GrandinThe Book of MistakesAfter the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again)Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to BeThe Thing Lou Couldn’t DoBeautiful Oops!Peter Reynolds Creatrilogy Box Set (Dot, Ish, Sky Color)Whistle for WillieUnstoppable Me!: 10 Ways to Soar Through LifeRosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers