Nagging is a habit that’s easy to fall into and get stuck in, but, in the end, rarely helps anyone. You get after your kid because the bedroom is still a mess even after you’ve asked them to clean it three times, which frustrates the child, and soon you’re at each other’s throats. Everything would be so much easier if kids were self-motivated. But how does a parent cultivate this — or is self-motivation something that a kid is simply born with?
Fortunately, there’s a lot a parent can do to help a child to learn to embrace a self-motivating mindset and become a self-starter. By encouraging curiosity, persistence, and optimism, parents can motivate kids to clean rooms, but also to find a new love for hobbies, school, sports, and work.
Educational psychologist and parenting adviser Richelle Whittaker, Ph.D., understands the frustrations of fellow parents and encourages them to view self-motivation as a trait grounded in positive self-esteem. “Self-motivated kids have a core belief that they can do hard things or things that might feel unpleasant, even when they fail at first,” she says.
Here are three ways to encourage children to be self-motivated.
Let Them Help, Even When It’s Not Convenient
Letting children help with household tasks practically ensures they’ll take longer to complete. Kids are likely to miss some spots when vacuuming the floor, and if they stir the cookie dough, they’re bound to create a wide blast radius of wayward flour. But a desire to help shows initiative, which is a trait they’ll need to maintain to become self-motivated adults.
“When kids are 5 or 6, they’re happy to help with chores. And when we allow them to do so, they experience the intrinsic reward of feeling like they are contributing to the home,” Whittaker says. When parents thank their young kids for helping or point out their effort to other family members, those children also experience the positive reinforcement that can stimulate a continued desire to pitch in.
On the other hand, turning a kid down when they offer assistance can decrease self-esteem and inhibit future initiative. So allowing them to help with even just part of the task, affirming the kindness of their offer even if you don’t accept it, or promising to let them help the next time are all ways to cushion the blow and preserve confidence when you just need to get a task done quickly.
Affirm Their Interests
It might seem impossible to motivate kids to do anything. Still, the reality is that there are activities children will dive into on their own — they’re just not always the activities that parents view as productive or necessary.
Identifying activities that drive kids and joining in on them can build the relational capital to nurture their capacity for self-motivation, Whittaker says. “It’s all about relationship-building,” she adds. “Engaging in the things they find interesting shows that you have interest in what they value, and it demonstrates to your child that they can teach you something.”
There’s also value in kids seeing parents struggle with an activity while continuing to stick with it. Whittaker saw how modeling persistence benefited her relationship with her kids when she started playing video games with them, even though it wasn’t really her thing.
“I’ve played Minecraft with my kids and I still don’t get it, but it’s been a good opportunity to have meaningful discussions,” she says. “Conversations often segue to other topics that allow me to learn about other things they like or things that are happening in their lives. It just kind of opened up this river and segues into different topics that help build rapport and affirm that we are part of a cohesive family structure.”
Encourage Effort and Initiative
A helpful complement to the deliberate work of relational connection and confidence-building is some good old-fashioned incentivization. There are a myriad of options to use, from sweet treats to screen time to cold hard cash. The type, frequency, and size of rewards can all be tailored to what works best for each individual family.
But incentivization that works best for developing self-motivated kids focuses on effort, initiative, and persistence — not simply on task completion. It’s a fine line and requires parents to clearly communicate reasonable expectations. It may even be helpful to demonstrate the level of task completion expected to earn a reward because kids and parents can often have differing standards for exactly how well a table needs to be wiped down before it’s ready to eat on again or how tidy their room has to be before it’s considered clean.
“Initially, you’re going to use external rewards as motivation, especially if the task is not fun,” Whittaker says. “But you do so with the idea that your child is working toward task initiation and completion becoming almost like muscle memory where they’ve developed a habit to start and complete those tasks on their own. But it’s important to remember that you’re not rewarding them for completing a task that you have to remind them of multiple times.”
Remember, though: Your children don’t have to initiate entirely on their own. Chore charts and other visual reminders work well for young kids, and older kids can be taught to use reminders on their tablets or cellphones. Because most people are forgetful, and learning how to use the tools to overcome that hurdle can be one of the keys to unlocking initiative and self-motivation.