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Motivation Magic: Practical ways to support, build and inspire motivation in your children

By Heather Rutherford
22 June 2021

Are your children self-starters or do they need a big push? Would you like to inspire your child to go the extra mile and embrace a challenge? Do you wonder about your child reaching their full potential?

What if there were gentle, positive and practical ways you could use the summer months, away from the pressure of the school year, to inspire your children to have initiative, drive and resilience?

What if by noticing the things that they get right, using language that builds their self-confidence and supporting their interests while teaching them to be independent, we were able to nurture, build and ignite their natural internal motivation? Wouldn’t that be worth a try?

One of the first parenting lessons we learn (sometimes the hard way) is that we can’t ‘make’ our children do anything, whether it’s to cooperate, take an interest in something or stretch themselves and try new things. Motivation needs to come from within. There are, however, things we can do, language we can use and an approach we can take that influence our children’s behaviour and their motivations. The summer, while relaxing and having fun, is a great time to give our children these lifelong gifts.

What does motivation look like?

Motivation is multi-layered and can appear at different times and in different forms. We often find it easier to recognise the qualities and habits of a motivated and internally-driven child than we do to understand why our children don’t feel motivated. We might see resourcefulness, flexibility, an ability to think and act independently with the self-control to manage setbacks, curiosity and a willingness to give things a try and to problem-solve. Motivated children do things for the satisfaction, feeling of accomplishment and to reach a goal rather than for external recognition. Motivation helps each of our children be their best, unique selves – and the good news is that with proper thought, these qualities can be nurtured.

Five ways to nurture motivation in your children

1. Get curious about their feelings:

  • 'Why is my daughter having trouble getting motivated? What makes it hard for her?’
  • ‘Why does my son do just enough or give up?’
  • ‘Why does she get upset and frustrated when she has to do something she finds hard?’
Behind every behaviour there is a cause. This is usually an emotion, an unmet need or a big feeling. How we feel affects what we do. To help our kids manage their behaviour, we need to start by looking at the feelings behind the actions. It’s important to get curious about the ‘why?’.

We might see our child giving up, showing a lack of interest, getting cross, procrastinating or doing just enough to get by. Neuroscientist and bestselling author Dr Dan Siegel tells us that we need to start with ‘chasing the WHY’. Our kids need our non-judgmental curiosity and our understanding about what’s behind what we see.

What could it be? How are our children feeling?

  • Sometimes the task they are given is too hard for the unique person that they are, and they feel incompetent, unsuccessful and frustrated.
  • Perhaps they feel overwhelmed or too much pressure (from us or others).
  • Perhaps they don’t have the skills yet and find it hard to know how to manage their time.
  • Maybe they’re doing too many activities and they’re exhausted.
  • Perhaps they have a self-image that tells them they are kids who don’t try hard, or that they’re ‘lazy’ or ‘not academic’.
  • Maybe they’re afraid to try for fear of getting it wrong or their internal voice is telling them they will never improve, so why bother?
  • Perhaps if they wait long enough, someone else eventually does it for them.
There are many potential emotions behind the behaviour we see and it’s our job to pause, get curious, show understanding, empathy and respect for their feelings. When we have connected with empathy, we’re in a place from which we can support and guide our children to understand their feelings and help them to problem-solve.

We might say: ‘It looks like this is really hard for you. I am wondering if you’re feeling too much pressure. I am here to help.’ No judgment. Just understanding and empathy.

2. Nurture their growth mindset

What we pay attention to and the words we use play a big part in how our children see and feel about themselves. As our children grow, our focus and teaching have a huge impact on how their brains develop. Let’s see what we can do this summer to pay attention to the qualities and the skills we are looking for, helping to build our children’ self-confidence and self-esteem and a growth-mindset approach to life.

We hear so much about the importance of having what US psychologist Carol Dweck termed a growth mindset – but why is it important and what we can do to help our kids develop their own? It’s worth the energy and the effort, as research shows that a growth mindset has a significant positive effect on motivation and academic outcomes.

A growth mindset is a belief system that says that our intelligence, abilities and talents are changeable; that our brain is malleable and we can improve through effort; and, importantly, that we all make mistakes – it’s just part of how we learn.

In contrast, a fixed mindset believes that intelligence and ability are innate. With this mindset we’re less willing to put in the effort, try harder and, as success is about proving ourselves, we don’t take risks for fear of failure.

Children with a growth mindset seek out challenges, enjoy the process, are willing to give things a go and know that failure is part of learning. A growth mindset fuels their motivation. Try it this summer:

  • Look for positive behaviour. Focus your attention on the effort, the attitude, the improvement. Celebrate the struggle.
  • Point out the qualities that you see such as enjoyment, perseverance, embracing setbacks, being flexible and sorting out their own mistakes:
  1. ‘Wow you worked really hard on that.’
  2. ‘You look as though you are loving that book. Tell me about it.’
  3. ‘I love that you found another way round that problem.’
  • Model a growth-mindset approach to life. Our kids notice and absorb everything we do. Think about your own soundtrack and mindset.
  • Use the power of YET: ‘You don’t quite have it yet.’
‘It’s really hard when things don’t come easily. I bet sometimes you might even feel like giving up tennis. Do you remember how hard you worked to get that bike working again? What a CHALLENGE! With tennis you just don’t have it YET.’

The words that our children hear from us become their own internal soundtrack.

‘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 Dweck.

3. Help them find their spark

What can we do this summer to help our kids find things that they love doing; that ignites their passion and makes them feel good about themselves; and where they feel the energy and the satisfaction of doing something they enjoy, where they feel happy and motivated and have a sense of purpose?

It may be their idea to try a new dance club, go to the skate park, collect things for a craft project, spend endless hours at the Science Museum or ask for a piece of garden to ‘create in’. Whatever it takes, the support and interest we take in their journey to unearth their passions are worth it.

When children feel interested, inspired, competent and happy doing things they enjoy, it spills over into other areas of their lives and their self-confidence grows. This is true for all kids but especially those who find academics and school life more challenging.

Having a passion helps instil a ‘can do’ attitude. Withstanding setbacks in something we enjoy teaches self-regulation, resilience, problem-solving – all of which lay the groundwork for building confidence and self-esteem.

As our brains are malleable, the more we do something, the more it becomes part of who we are. As neuroscientists say: ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together.’ When we practise learning from mistakes, setbacks and failure, it becomes part of our brain architecture – and our mindset.

Helping kids understand and know themselves – what they love, what their superpowers are and what they find challenging – goes towards building a sense of self-worth and fuelling motivation.

‘I know you find this maths a challenge. Remember how hard you found that dance move at first. You persevered and kept trying and trying until you got it. I bet that felt great.’

4. Nurture independence

Motivation is driven by a desire to act and a choice to act. Training our kids to be independent builds competence that nurtures their self-confidence and their motivation. Our goal is for them to be the primary actor in their own life – with our guidance, love and support.

Giving our kids agency and autonomy within the support structure of our families means coaching them in age-appropriate ways to make choices, to have their own ideas and do things for themselves – which includes making and sorting out their mistakes. We’re providing the scaffolding and the boundaries, but we support them to do as much as they can for themselves.

Take a little time before the summer really kicks in to think about the things that your kids can be doing for themselves. Perhaps it’s making their own arrangements with friends to get to summer camp, taking on responsibility for mowing the lawn or caring for their pet, folding their laundry and getting their own stuff ready for cricket or cooking dinner one night a week. The list of age- and developmentally appropriate tasks is endless.Research on motivation highlights the importance of autonomy and choice as well as optimally challenged tasks. It’s about giving kids a chance to stretch themselves but not so far that it’s demotivating. We want to teach, train and let go of the reins step by step. Being dumped in it over their heads is very unmotivating.

I love the four-step method towards independence that I heard from Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Stanford University dean and author of Your Turn: How to Be an Adult. It’s a great way to think about training our children to be independent.

The four stages are:

  1. I do it for you.
  2. I do it with you.
  3. I watch you do it (I am here to help if you need me).
  4. You can do it alone!
For example: I mow the lawn and teach and coach you as I do it. I walk alongside you, helping you start the engine, use the throttle, adjust the speed and safely navigate the contours and empty the grass. I watch you as I prune the roses – I’m here if you need me. You are on your own and it must feel great!

Have a chat through. Children will experience frustration, challenges and make mistakes. It’s an important and very necessary part of learning. We want to be their scaffold rather than their snowplough, empathising with their feelings and supporting them to figure things out. One effective way to do this is with a ‘chat through’. Set aside a time when you are not rushed and can tune into your child and talk through what is going to happen. Begin positively identifying any issues and feelings. Calmly ask questions to find out what your child knows and feels and encourage their ideas. Agree a plan of action then review and decide the next steps:

  • ‘You should be really proud that you’ve taken on the job of mowing the lawn. You’re working hard on those stripes. I know you feel awful that you lost the shed key. I’m wondering what you think might be a good plan for keeping it safe. Under the flowerpot? That’s a great idea.‘
  • ‘I know you’re really excited about cricket camp and thank you for taking on responsibility for getting all your stuff together every evening. I’m wondering how you might feel if Freddie is in a different group to you?
’Let them work through their feelings and their mistakes while being there for them. Navigating small things helps build the confidence, the self-esteem and motivation to manage the bigger things. We want to teach and train step by step as their coach, their collaborator and their support, using our intuition while sending the message: ‘You’ve got this. I believe in you.’

5. Our children need champions

It can take just one adult who understands and believes in them to turn a child’s motivation around. Our children need cheerleaders in their corner. We are there with our connection and our unconditional love, but the great thing about helping our children find their spark and supporting their interests and nurturing their independence is that they are more likely to work and play with coaches, teachers, leaders who will be role models and mentors who understand and believe in our kids. These relationships can be so important to helping our kids believe in themselves, find their purpose and feel valued.

Many a child has found their spark or passion or started believing in themselves and their abilities through one important relationship. It could be a school tutor, fencing coach, riding instructor or Scout leader who ignites their self-belief. Children thrive with champions who have realistic yet high expectations on their side and in their corner. They are the ones who empathise and say, ‘Yeah, this is tough – you don’t quite have it yet. I believe in you!’

Most importantly from us, they need that deep connection and unconditional love; they need support, understanding, patience, attention, interest and empathy.

Enjoy the summer – relax, reconnect and have fun while gently building your child’s self-esteem, supporting their passions, nurturing their feeling of competence and motivation. They’ll be set up to get back to school inspired and being their best selves.