Raising Children to be Internally Motivated

Raising children to be internally motivated in a society that focuses on cheap thrills and “15 minutes of fame” can be difficult.

However, raising children who are self-motivated is a surefire way to ensure that your child will be able to succeed later in life. Successful people know what hard work is – and that the hard work is worth doing, with or without the reward.

6 tips for raising internally motivated children and why you need to give up "rewarding" your kids in order for them to be "successful." (Whatever your definition of successful is.)

I read two articles last weekend which motivated me to write this post, something I’ve shied away from as it can be a bit of a sensitive topic.

The first article I read was a chapter from actress Mindy Kaling’s new book, Why Not Me?, in which she explains why she is a confident woman. Although I think the whole article is worth reading, for me it boils down to these three excerpts:

  1. “I don’t understand how you could have self-confidence if you don’t do the work.”
  2. “It’s just that, the truth is, I have never, ever, ever met a highly confident and successful person who is not what a movie would call a “workaholic.” We can’t have it both ways, and children should know that.”
  3. Work hard, know your sh*t, show your sh*t, and then feel entitled.

The second article revolved around the following Instagram post from Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Harrison:

James Harrison's Instagram post regarding his son's participation trophies

Two successful professionals in competitive industries, both sharing that they do not believe that anyone (including themselves or their children) reserves recognition or rewards before having put in the hard work of becoming knowledgeable and skilled in their field. And they don’t relegate this just to “grown up professional standards” but as a life standard.

Alfie Kohn’s work has also focused on this – how using rewards for motivation or giving rewards too freely can cause children to become rewards-driven and not develop an ability to become internally motivated. Essentially, how pre-emptive rewards stunt children’s ability to self-motivate and achieve on their own.

Rewards for learning undermine intrinsic motivation - Alfie Kohn. Check out our 6 tips for raising internally motivated children!

What is Internal Motivation?

Internal motivation is when the desire and drive for something comes completely from within. Even if there is no reward or recognition for “success” or “achievement” of the goal, the personal desire to do one’s best is unaffected.

In a world where it seems like everyone wants success and recognition, but very few people want to put in the (unglamourous, monotonous, hard) work, it is a powerful mindset to raise a child who is focused on the work. To take the proverbial carrot or stick out of the equation – that is, to make the enjoyment of orderly and focused work a pleasure or achievement in and of itself. (Part of why I love Montessori.) To not tie our children’s efforts to a consequence or reward, but encouraging them to be reflective and take ownership for their work.

Confidence comes from a deep knowing that you are secure in something. We don’t raise children to be confident by giving them “band-aid” rewards. Truly confident children have worked hard to achieve the thing that they are confident in – whether it is academic success, musical ability, or even confidence in a friendship.

Yes, some children can be “duped” into believe that they are good at something by these band-aid rewards, but by giving them false recognition, we set them up for a hard fall when they eventually realize that the thing that they were confident in – that thing they came to identify as part of them – was based on falsehood.

It’s Not About Undermining Children

Now, I’m not suggesting that parents start pointing out their child’s flaws or saying “but you know that in real baseball, there’s no t-ball stand.” We’re not looking to undermine our children, we’re looking to positively encourage them in ways that don’t involve false rewards and external motivation.

How do you develop internal motivation in children?

  1. You love them unconditionally.

Children who feel secure and loved in their primary relationship don’t feel the need to achieve or “be good at something” in order to be loved. Anything that they drive themselves to do comes from an empowered and whole self.

2. Create opportunities for children to feel successful.

This is why I love practical life activities. If you present a child with a developmentally-appropriate practical life activity – anything from pouring water to hammering a nail – they are given an opportunity to fine tune a skill and feel a sense of accomplishment. (And practical life activities tend to be an area where all children can succeed with a bit of focus and determination in just a few attempts.)

Start out with basic skills and then encourage children to fine tune.

If the learner is doing the task to get the reward, it will be understood on some level, that the task is inherently undesirable. Forget the use of rewards... Make school meaningful, relevant, and fun - Eric Jansen. Check out our 6 Tips for Raising Internally Motivated Children.

3. Make the work fun!

Even if the work is intrinsically not fun, adopt a fun attitude towards the work.

If possible, add a fun element to the work. If learning how to count, try to use fun counters to do it, rather than using a fun reward to motivate “boring” work.

4. Encourage children to be reflective of their work

Ask them about their work – listen to them and encourage them to figure out solutions to any roadblocks:

  • How did you feel about your work?
  • Can you tell me about your work?
  • What did you like about your work?
  • What was your favourite part?
  • What was hard about this work?

Try to use judgement-neutral comments like, “I love all of the bright colours you used,” or “Wow, you worked really hard at this!” You can still be affectionate and encouraging while encouraging children to be self-reflective.

The focus is on their work, on their interest – not on how the grown-up feels about it after the work is done.

5. Reward appropriately

Of course, reward your child when warranted and allow them to enjoy rewards that they have earned.

Be judicious and selective when giving out rewards, and try to pick rewards that are proportional to the achievement. Try not to let the award overshadow the amazing work that your child has done.

Also, try not to promise rewards as motivation. This can be hard to do, but there is a fine line between encouraging your child to do their best, and trying to motivate your child with a prize.

For some children, a extra sixth step should be taken:

6. Encourage children to adjust their focus

Some children are already in the “external motivation” mindset, and in those cases it is good to encourage them to refocus. For example, if your child wants to be a star soccer player because they want popularity, try to refocus on what playing soccer is all about, what intrinsic benefits they may experience while playing soccer, the fun of the sport, etc.

You wouldn’t want a doctor who is more concerned with their paycheque and respect than with practicing good medicine and taking care of their patients – the same principle applies here. You want to encourage your child to be motivated for the “right reasons.”

6 tips for raising internally motivated children and why you need to give up "rewarding" your kids in order for them to be "successful." (Whatever your definition of successful is.)

Entire (shelves of) books have been written about this topic, and I can hardly do it justice in a (already too long) blog post – but for further reading I highly recommend Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards.

The take-away here is that successful, happy, and confident people must learn to do the work for themselves. You don’t raise happy children by doing everything for them, or making their worlds revolve around ease and comfort. You raise happy children by encouraging them to pursue interests and purpose.

You allow them to experience real life so they can develop good habits and attitudes towards work so that they are empowered to build a life they love.

I want to hear from you – how have you encouraged your children to develop internal motivation?


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  1. This is so great, Jennifer! As I piano teacher I often struggle to explain to kids who are used to getting rewards at every turn, that the reward of hard practice is being able to play a beautiful piece! Many kids aren’t used to actually having to work very hard and so they get discouraged when a song seems too tough,
    And honestly, it’s the kids who are internally-motivated that do way better in their lessons.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is a great article. I agree. This is why we don’t give our daughter rewards for being helpful around the house. We want her to feel satisfied by her efforts, not by a cookie $$. I do my best to stay away from hot words like “smart” or “talented” and instead use phrases like, “You really worked hard,” or “that looked tough but you did it!”

  3. Nice to virtually meet you fellow Canadian. Wow, our Montessori backgrounds much have us both thinking about similar things when it comes to raising children to be internally motivated. I am glad you enjoyed my post on the topic too – it is good that people are talking about it.
    I love your point #6 – I am going to be using it with my youngest daughter – it it always nice to hear the ideas that other people have on the topic of raising internally motivated children.

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