Ultimately, There’s Only One Thing that Really Motivates Children (And Adults)

child working hard

What will motivate Molly to do her homework?  Her inherent love of mathematics?   Probably not.  In general, we don’t first love mathematics and therefore do mathematics.  It’s just the opposite:  We come to love mathematics when we get good at it.

What will motivate Molly to do her homework?  The promise of prizes from her mother?  Perhaps.  But only as long as the prizes keep coming.   And only as long as Sally is interested in the prizes.  And then, she’ll be motivated to get the prize, not to do her homework or to learn mathematics.

What will motivate Molly to do her homework?   Our deepest motivations come from our identification with some system of values.   Our deepest motivations develop slowly over time through the thousands of interactions we have with the important people in our lives.  Our deepest motives consist of our attempt to live up to valued images of success  — images of who we are and who we want to become.

Contrary to popular belief, such valued images do not simply spring up from inside of us.  Nor are they simply handed down to us from our parents or elders.   Our identities – our theories of ourselves – develop slowly in countless interactions with parents, teachers, mentors, friends, peers, and so forth.

Our identities – our valued theories of ourselves – are powerful motivators.  When we identify ourselves with a set of values, images and ideals, we become motivated to uphold those values, images and ideals.  After all, those values and ideals become who we are; they become our selves.

The Value of Internalizing Values

There are many ways in which parents attempt to influence their children.  Here are three of them:

  1. Power Assertion.  Parents have more power than their children.  As a result, parents can get children to do quite a lot of things simply by virtue of the parent’s greater power.  The parent can punish children, threaten to punish children, withhold privileges, use anger to scare children into compliance, and so forth.
  2. Love Withdrawal.  Children want their parents to love them.  Parents use the strategy of love withdrawal when they explicitly or implicitly make their love for the children contingent on a child’s behavior. Examples of love withdrawal can range from the explicit:  “I don’t like you when you don’t do your homework” to sulking or withdrawing affection from children when they misbehave.
  3. Value Induction.  Value induction involves the simple attempt to explain the reasons why any given behavior is desirable or misbehavior is undesirable.  When a parent explains the real reasons why he or she values some behavior, children are more likely to appreciate those values and internalize them.

Which of these three techniques is the most powerful one?  Power assertion and love withdrawal are powerful ways to prompt children to comply with a parent’s wishes.  However, they work only in the short term – only when the parent is present.  Decades of research unambiguously shows that value induction is the only mode of influencing children that has lasting benefits.  Children who understand and appreciate a parent’s values are more likely to internalize them and act on them.

I Act on My Theory of Who I Want to Be

We are, in part, who we think we are.  We are, in part, the mindset through which we view ourselves and the world.   Who we think we are — our identities – are a kind of “theory”.  An identity is a kind of “theory of myself”.

We act on the basis of our theories of who we want to be.  Johnny wants to be a star football player.  He wants the status and adulation that comes from that identity.  Being a football star is one way that he can achieve a sense of worth.  He values being a football star.

The desire to be a football star is a kind of identification.  I identify with the football star.  I want to be able to identify myself as a football star.

But there’s more to life than football.  What identifies should we really value? What identifications should we try to promote in our children?

Our most powerful motives come from our identifications.   We value some way of being and work to identify ourselves that that way of being.

The key to cultivating motivation in children is to ask continuously:  How can I help my child build a worthy theory of him or herself?  What am I doing to help my child identify him or herself with a worthy set of values?