A primary goal of developing intrinsic motivation in children is to help them function as responsible adults in the future (as opposed to entitled adults who shy away from the hard work it takes to achieve success). Grown-ups who have learned the rationale behind decisions are typically good decision-makers themselves, and are likely to have an easier time achieving in school, finding a good life partner, and succeeding in a career. But if that long-term view seems a bit far off, focus on how much better behaved your children will be now if you help them develop their intrinsic motivation, and how much more you can enjoy parenthood when you aren’t the only one doing the hard work.
A great way to start incorporating the intrinsic in your parenting is to focus on effort, not performance. We’ve all learned that giving your child lots of praise will boost their self-esteem and make them happier and higher-achieving. But the common practice of telling our children that they are “smart” or making a big deal out of their skills is not always the most effective way to empower them. As a classroom teacher, I can’t tell you how many times I worked with students who were very intelligent, but who struggled to complete assignments or maintain their grades.
You may indeed have a child who is fabulously smart and does amazing things. Congratulations! But if you want her to become an adult who reaches her potential for success, you may want to draw more attention to her EFFORT than her smarts. Future success is actually correlated less with raw intelligence, and more with the ability to stick with difficult tasks. Whatever passion your child will grow up to pursue, he will probably need to work at it a lot to be excellent, even if he has lots of innate talent. The folks who can put in the time without being discouraged (or worse, expecting it to come easily because they are so “smart”), are those who tend to go the farthest in life.
A second rule worth following if you want your children to start managing themselves is to stop helping them so much. All children have a need to achieve. It’s called “mastery motivation” or “development of competence” in research on child development, but most parents know it as pride. The priceless grin on your child’s face as he gets that tall block tower to stay standing for the first time needs no theoretical explanation. But in our need to feel needed, many of us sabotage opportunities for more pride-building experiences by doing too much for our kids. Many two and three-year-olds can learn to put on and take off their shoes or other articles of clothing, spread peanut butter or cream cheese on a cracker, use a napkin and mirror to clean their face, carry a small bag of groceries, load or unload small plates in the dishwasher, put wet clothes from a basket into the dryer, etc. Not only do such activities provide a valuable lesson in all the work that goes into running a household, they develop motor skills, concentration, and PRIDE! Children who can do lots of things for themselves tend to be happier and more engaged in learning. So take account of all the little tasks that your children can learn to do around the house. It will make everyone happier if the parents relinquish some responsibilities and the children take them on.
We all do things in the moment that we aren’t proud of, during those times when parenting feels like survival. But changing the pattern of those little moments can be a very big change in the life of your child! Shifting motivations away from wanting treats and prizes, and toward wanting to feel good about doing the right thing is a dramatic change in the kind of person you are helping to create. And when we help our children become better people, we can’t help but become better people ourselves along the way.