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How do you motivate your child?

by Ines Wurbs

What we commonly understand as ambition is referred to in psychology as achievement motivation. So, if a person works on a task until it is successfully solved. But how do we manage to “create” ambition?

The most important factor influencing ambition is freedom of choice. If I have the feeling that I have decided on the topic, my desire to complete the task given is particularly high. The influencing factors are interest in the topic and the importance of the goal.

If you want to know which conditions are important for high ambition and high-performance motivation in our children, then read on.

How do you develop motivation?

To develop ambition, strong self-esteem is important. The expectation to create something coupled with the importance of the result drives us. Talent is not absolutely necessary, but especially interest influences whether we complete a task or not.

Perceived independence is essential for this. When I feel like I made my own choice and have the freedom to choose, I do it rather than being told to do it.

When the task is done, our children need constructive praise and recognition for it. Children also develop ambition more easily, if they observe and learn this from their parents.

If a goal is not achieved, it is crucial for the ambition how you and your children deal with it. Children in particular often need help to learn from their mistakes.

Make tasks that your child has to do routinely, part of your everyday life, and make an overview of what still needs to be done for that day or week.

In general, a lot is more fun in a group. Working towards a goal in an unusual and creative way makes the work particularly exciting.

Fortunately, we can influence our own motivation, but also our children’s motivation to achieve. I will explain to you in more detail what ambition is, where it comes from, and how we can increase our ambition and that of our children a bit later. 

The development of ambition and motivation in children

Everything that is complete and perfect is admired. Everything that develops is underestimated.

Friedrich Nietzsche

From an early age, children learn that they have an influence on their environment.

  • They kick the mobile and it moves.
  • They scream and mom appears.

The older our children get, the more they learn about cause-and-effect relationships. From the age of two, children learn more autonomy. We also know it as a defiance phase.

Everything wants to be done by the children themselves, which drives many parents to despair. It is precisely this time that shapes our children in terms of ambition.

A lot is tried out and learned during this phase. Here, it is particularly important that you support your child in staying tuned. Not everything will succeed immediately. That doesn’t matter, but of course, it can also trigger disappointment and anger. In this case, it is helpful, if we parents teach our children how to deal positively with failure. At the same time, you can discuss with your kid, how to deal with feelings. 

For us adults, the path to reach a goal is already fulfilling. But that is not the case for our children. Only the goal itself is important to them. If they don’t make it there, they’ll be frustrated. And this is precisely the point, our commitment is important. We have to motivate our children and encourage them in their performance or create conditions that enable simple goals and thus quick rewards.

How do you get your kid competitive?

Many of us believe that success depends on our school grades, intelligence, assertiveness, or even talent. However, numerous studies (including the West Point study) have confirmed that they do not predict our success.

No, actually, it is our ambition that makes us successful. Be it in sports, learning an instrument, or in our job. If study participants showed good grades but low values ​​in ambition, they reached their goal much less often. But what is ambition? 

What is self-efficacy and why is it important?

Self-efficacy is the expectation of whether and how we will master a task. It influences our motivation and thus our ambition. Yet, it is only one of many subcomponents.

However, the self-efficacy theories neglect a particularly important component, namely the goal. In fact, studies have shown that it is important for our achievement-motivation whether the goal is important to us or not.

The  “expectation multiplied by value theory”

This has led to the development of the expectation multiplied by value theory. It says, that a person who is achievement-motivated chooses their actions consciously. In doing so, we weigh the probability of success against the value that the goal has for us. If you will, we weigh the risk in a difficult task. Ambitious people usually choose moderately difficult tasks or even difficult ones.

On the other hand, people who simply try to avoid failure usually choose easy or very difficult tasks. It’s easier for our ego to “excuse” a failure if it was considered unachievable from the start.

11 tips to encourage motivation and competition

Tip 1: Autonomy

Autonomy is the key. So let your children decide, do, and choose for themselves as much as possible. Of course, it’s difficult at school. But even there are still enough decisions that can be left to your child. For example: what is processed first, when is what processed and how. Always age-appropriate, of course. Because of this, your child will also become more and more independent because he/ she can do more and more, and it is becoming easier for him/her to organize himself/herself.

Tip 2: Routines

Studies have shown that children find it easier when they develop a certain daily routine. Now, that may sound like a contradiction. But it is not. Even within a daily routine, you can freely choose what is to be processed first, for example.

This is of course not a must. However, this strengthens the children’s sense of security, and they can prepare for what is to come. This takes uncertainty and, as a result, stress out of everyday life. Your child will associate more positive feelings with completing the task. Hobbies may develop in this way. But in any case, it increases intrinsic (coming from within) motivation.

Tip 3: Time management

Effective time management for the whole family is also helpful. So, timetables, but also weekly plans or family planners help your children to get a better overview of the upcoming tasks.

Tip 4: Role models

Here, too, the role model function of parents is important. If your child sees you committing yourself to a task and working hard at it, and thereby succeeding at something, your child will start making connections. It learns that the effort pays off.

Tip 5: Praise and beautiful moments

Experience many beautiful moments together with your children. Praise your child and give him/her credit. This will make the child proud of what has been achieved, lead to better bonding, and thereby make your child stronger (i.e. more resilient). See my article on resilience for more information and tips on building your child’s resilience.

However, the type of praise is important. The praise should show your child that they are responsible for their own success and not just luck or outside forces. So if you say: “Very good, you’re a natural talent” the cause of success is more likely to be luck. But say: “Wonderful, you’ve already practiced that well!” This helps your child to see that he/she has made it through diligence or through his/her own effort.

Tip 6: Support

It makes sense to give your child feedback if it’s coping with tasks, be it school or hobby. Do it in a way, that the feedback can be used constructively. So, not accusatory and judgmental. But with facts and tips for better coping.

Tip 7: Failures

When dealing with failure, you should teach your child that mistakes can also be useful and that making mistakes is human and natural. Show him/her alternative ways and discuss the situation with your child. Also, what feelings it triggered in him/her. In this way, your child also learns more about his/her feelings and learns to understand what happened in this situation.

Tip 8: Control your control

Do not control your children’s “work” too much, but do so in an age-appropriate manner. Excessive control counteracts independent work and reduces intrinsic motivation.

Tip 9: Enable exchange with peers

The exchange among peers, i.e. either in groups, clubs, or in any case in the class association, develops a feeling of belonging. This arouses interest in standing out in the group through good performance.

Tip 10: Rewards

Rewards can be undermining intrinsic motivation (if you use them as a control), but they can also be supportive. Especially if it is informative feedback.

So, “If you do that, you’ll get a toy” isn’t optimal. “You stuck with it and that’s why it worked great” is much more helpful. It also contains the information on why it probably worked and that your child was able to hold it in their own hands.

Tip 11: Address all senses

It is beneficial for motivation if many senses are addressed to acquire knowledge for a topic and if different, also unusual, playful materials are used to deepen what has been learned.

Extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation

If actions are only carried out because they were prompted by pressure from others or because of particularly attractive incentives, they are externally determined (i.e. extrinsically motivated).

Reward and punishment work like this. However, they are highly dependent forms of motivation. The problem with this is that this motivation does not last long and is difficult to apply to necessary intermediate goals. The quality achieved is also usually poor. This is because only the most necessary criteria are met, also little commitment is shown.

The experiences in these situations are usually associated with bad feelings because they are triggered by fear and stress. External motivation, such as praise and punishment, also requires the conviction that you can master the task yourself.

But avoiding a guilty conscience also has a motivating effect. It is, so to speak, the lowest level of self-determined action. Although it is intrinsic, i.e. motivated by the person himself, it is still not optimal. The main focus of this type of motivation is to look good in front of others and to be recognized by your friends. The feeling of shame and exclusion should be avoided.

Goals that are only triggered by our special interests, but are not actually important to us themselves, can give us a high level of achievement motivation. For example, volunteer work.

For example, clothes and their size are not relevant to me, but distributing suitable clothing to the needy is. So, I am motivated to learn which sizes are roughly suitable for which body measurements. My interest is actually to help others, and I still acquire knowledge about clothing sizes. Actions are therefore also taken if we do not believe that we are competent.

Why is self-determination the key?

Studies have shown that activities are more likely to be carried out the more self-determined they are. This also leads to better results on the task. Interestingly, it has been shown that students who pursue autonomous concepts are also better able to deal with failure.

According to Rayn and Conell 1989, they have better coping strategies. So, you’re better off reconciling yourself to failure. Across all studies, it is shown that the autonomy experienced has the greatest impact on achievement motivation. Even when we think we might not be competent, we may still be able to motivate ourselves or our children to take an action. But in this case, the personal interest must be very high and the goal as a whole, as well as individual intermediate goals, must be experienced as significant for us.

Intrinsic motivation is primarily triggered by a desire for belonging, power, or achievement.

Studies have shown that self-regulation is important. To be precise, it is crucial which goals are being pursued. 

How do interest and motivation influence learning?

Interests are another important factor when it comes to motivation to learn. It is a special relationship between a person and the object of study. When your child is interested in a particular subject, they are self-motivated to learn more about it and elevate their skills. In this case, almost exclusively positive emotions are experienced and collected while dealing with the learning material.

But again, the value that the topic has for your child is essential. It can also be a subject that does not necessarily correspond to the profound interest itself, but it is still experienced as essential and there is an interest in dealing with the topic because it is important for something else. For example, Latin.

The language itself does not necessarily have to trigger joy or fun in your child. But it can still be of great interest because they know that they will need the subject later in their studies, or because the alternative would be a living language. So, there is learning.

In addition, a certain period of engagement with a topic may also be necessary if the child is interested in ballet, for example. In class, it can happen that the exercises become uninteresting or exhausting for the children. Currently, ballet is not what the children imagined. Here it is important to agree in advance that a minimum time has to be completed (e.g. half a school year). When it then “clicks” and the training success is evident, you can tell whether you are still interested or not.

Conclusion about motivation

Of course, it’s best if your child develops a personal interest in an object. However, we cannot assume this for all subjects. The ambition to learn can be changed and can be improved with the tips above. Self-determination and creativity in the development of the topic are required. Even older children will always need your support. This is still an issue during puberty. So have courage and approach your pubescent child, who always knows everything better.

Additional information about motivation

For more on self-efficacy and motivation to learn, see Schunks and DiBenedettos ”Self-Efficacy and human motivation”.

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