How to Instil Intrinsic Motivation in a Child

“Will you concentrate on your work, please?”

“Stay still, dear, two more assignments to finish before bedtime.”

“I won’t buy you that latest game console, unless you’re done.”

Do these words sound familiar? Have you grown tired of mumbling these reminders to your children, so much so that you wish you could just sit back, shut up, cross your arms and leave your child to work on autopilot mode?

When parents feel overwhelmed nagging their children to get work done, they could often forget one thing. A simple-to-understand and intuitive finding in Educational Psychology: Motivation in a learner cannot be forced, it has to be found by the learner him or herself.

That is, as far as intrinsic motivation goes. And in case you’re wondering, intrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something based on the doer’s appreciation of the activity itself as valuable or interesting; while extrinsic motivation is the “forced” desire to engage in an activity because one has been threatened or bribed to do so. In other words, strictly speaking, extrinsic motivation…isn’t actually real motivation at all.

And it goes without saying that when a child doesn’t have the intrinsic motivation to learn, we will always have to keep them on close monitor so as to make them work. This could prove to create both tension and misery on both parties — the learner/ child, as well as the supervisor/ parent. Worse still, relying on extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic motivation can mean compromising a child’s long-term performance in learning and development in his or her creativity.

How, then, can we, as educators or parents, cultivate intrinsic in children? Here are a few actionable tips on how.

Cultivate a love for beauty and reduce the emphasis on concrete knowledge

Does your child have an eye for beauty? What are some hidden and neglected sources of beauty around you and your child? Beauty can be found in sounds, in shapes, in colours, in written words or symbols, in smells, in textures and in all sorts of intangible things. As John Keats once famously said, “For beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Becoming aware of the presence of beauty itself, its various manifestations in life and its importance to us as humans is the first step to acquiring knowledge. This is quite simply because humans are naturally and instinctively drawn to what is beautiful. Beauty in a thing leads us to aspire to know more about it. And aspiration leads to motivation. A child immersed in beautiful audio recordings of stories every day will grow up loving to speak. A child surrounded by beautiful paintings and guided to appreciate them will grow up loving to paint. Do not move on prematurely to pouring in concrete knowledge into their brains and requiring them to absorb it just yet. As you guide them through appreciating beautiful things, always remember that cultivating the right attitude in learning precedes the learning itself. There’s no hurry to impart knowledge, as a love for beauty and the grit to pursue it will eventually entail knowledge.

Gamify learning

A child’s natural way of learning is playing. Reading a phrase to a child, forcing him or her to repeat after you and to write it could often be less effective than using it repeatedly in the process of playing a game with him or her, especially when it is one that appeals to his/ her interest. The most learning takes place when a learner has the least awareness that any learning is taking place at all. Find out what games interest your child, and add a few tweaks to it so that the game becomes educational. For example, I’ve tried playing chess and cards with my learners in English so that they become familiar with concepts such as possessive pronouns (“Your turn? Or my turn?”) If you’re creative enough, it is always possible to gamify learning to incorporate competition, cooperation, problem-solving and self-expression so that learning becomes no longer only a process of knowledge-acquirement but also a worthwhile activity, and better still, a fun pastime!

Better still, play together with your child and be truly engaged. Show your child how stoked you are and how much fun you’re having. Wear a pair of fresh eyes and try to learn something in the process. You’re the best role model to show your child that learning is something fun to do.

Make mastery cool

As Ashton Kutcher once said, “The sexiest thing in the entire world is being really smart.” Show your child how far intelligence can bring you. “Doesn’t this mean telling them that papa is smart and that’s why papa is so much richer than other people?” I hear you say. But the thing is, you do not necessarily have to do this by bringing others down. Show them that being smart is cool by demonstrating how much positive impact you can gravitate on the world by being good at what you do, (not by counting how many people you can beat with your abilities!). Even if you’re no Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, you can always bring your child to a concert where a master pianist who plays with a mesmerising flair. Another good way to instil aspiration is to teach them about the giants. Reading biographies is an effective way to do so. Read with them the illustrated biography of Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Amadeus Mozart, Helen Keller (or any other great historical person for that matter). Ask a child for their feedback — which one of these remarkable people do they aspire to emulate? Who do they look up to the most? I, for one, have grown up looking up to and wanting to write like Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll, and to this day I still aspire to write like them. Looking up to the masters is really the first step to approaching mastery.

In the next article, I am going to talk about some other tips on how to instil intrinsic motivation in a young learner, including on how to

  • Not compartmentalise play-time and work-time,
  • Show them that success in learning leads to the fulfilment of higher purposes,
  • Never use fear or punishment as a motivator and
  • Encourage them to showcase what they’ve learned and take pride in their achievement.

Stay tuned and keep learning!

“Will you concentrate on your work, please?”

“Stay still, dear, two more assignments to finish before bedtime.”

“I won’t buy you that latest game console, unless you’re done.”

Do these words sound familiar? Have you grown tired of mumbling these reminders to your children, so much so that you wish you could just sit back, shut up, cross your arms and leave your child to work on autopilot mode?

When parents feel overwhelmed nagging their children to get work done, they could often forget one thing. A simple-to-understand and intuitive finding in Educational Psychology: Motivation in a learner cannot be forced, it has to be found by the learner him or herself.

That is, as far as intrinsic motivation goes. And in case you’re wondering, intrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something based on the doer’s appreciation of the activity itself as valuable or interesting; while extrinsic motivation is the “forced” desire to engage in an activity because one has been threatened or bribed to do so. In other words, strictly speaking, extrinsic motivation…isn’t actually real motivation at all.

And it goes without saying that when a child doesn’t have the intrinsic motivation to learn, we will always have to keep them on close monitor so as to make them work. This could prove to create both tension and misery on both parties — the learner/ child, as well as the supervisor/ parent. Worse still, relying on extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic motivation can mean compromising a child’s long-term performance in learning and development in his or her creativity.

How, then, can we, as educators or parents, cultivate intrinsic in children? Here are a few actionable tips on how.

Cultivate a love for beauty and reduce the emphasis on concrete knowledge

Does your child have an eye for beauty? What are some hidden and neglected sources of beauty around you and your child? Beauty can be found in sounds, in shapes, in colours, in written words or symbols, in smells, in textures and in all sorts of intangible things. As John Keats once famously said, “For beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Becoming aware of the presence of beauty itself, its various manifestations in life and its importance to us as humans is the first step to acquiring knowledge. This is quite simply because humans are naturally and instinctively drawn to what is beautiful. Beauty in a thing leads us to aspire to know more about it. And aspiration leads to motivation. A child immersed in beautiful audio recordings of stories every day will grow up loving to speak. A child surrounded by beautiful paintings and guided to appreciate them will grow up loving to paint. Do not move on prematurely to pouring in concrete knowledge into their brains and requiring them to absorb it just yet. As you guide them through appreciating beautiful things, always remember that cultivating the right attitude in learning precedes the learning itself. There’s no hurry to impart knowledge, as a love for beauty and the grit to pursue it will eventually entail knowledge.

Gamify learning

A child’s natural way of learning is playing. Reading a phrase to a child, forcing him or her to repeat after you and to write it could often be less effective than using it repeatedly in the process of playing a game with him or her, especially when it is one that appeals to his/ her interest. The most learning takes place when a learner has the least awareness that any learning is taking place at all. Find out what games interest your child, and add a few tweaks to it so that the game becomes educational. For example, I’ve tried playing chess and cards with my learners in English so that they become familiar with concepts such as possessive pronouns (“Your turn? Or my turn?”) If you’re creative enough, it is always possible to gamify learning to incorporate competition, cooperation, problem-solving and self-expression so that learning becomes no longer only a process of knowledge-acquirement but also a worthwhile activity, and better still, a fun pastime!

Better still, play together with your child and be truly engaged. Show your child how stoked you are and how much fun you’re having. Wear a pair of fresh eyes and try to learn something in the process. You’re the best role model to show your child that learning is something fun to do.

Make mastery cool

As Ashton Kutcher once said, “The sexiest thing in the entire world is being really smart.” Show your child how far intelligence can bring you. “Doesn’t this mean telling them that papa is smart and that’s why papa is so much richer than other people?” I hear you say. But the thing is, you do not necessarily have to do this by bringing others down. Show them that being smart is cool by demonstrating how much positive impact you can gravitate on the world by being good at what you do, (not by counting how many people you can beat with your abilities!). Even if you’re no Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, you can always bring your child to a concert where a master pianist who plays with a mesmerising flair. Another good way to instil aspiration is to teach them about the giants. Reading biographies is an effective way to do so. Read with them the illustrated biography of Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Amadeus Mozart, Helen Keller (or any other great historical person for that matter). Ask a child for their feedback — which one of these remarkable people do they aspire to emulate? Who do they look up to the most? I, for one, have grown up looking up to and wanting to write like Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll, and to this day I still aspire to write like them. Looking up to the masters is really the first step to approaching mastery.

In the next article, I am going to talk about some other tips on how to instil intrinsic motivation in a young learner, including on how to

  • Not compartmentalise play-time and work-time,
  • Show them that success in learning leads to the fulfilment of higher purposes,
  • Never use fear or punishment as a motivator and
  • Encourage them to showcase what they’ve learned and take pride in their achievement.

Stay tuned and keep learning!