How to Teach Children to Be Self-Motivated

Teaching children to be self-motivated is crucial so that they can persevere and cope with tasks that are difficult or unpleasant for them.
How to Teach Children to Be Self-Motivated
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 30 April, 2023

On a day-to-day basis, children have multiple tasks to accomplish that they may not enjoy or feel like doing at the time. For example, these may include picking up their toys, making their bed, bathing, completing their homework, or studying for a test. Lack of motivation can lead them to not act, to do so unhappily or while complaining, and to generate a negative atmosphere at home. But what if the key lies in teaching children to be self-motivated?

Keep in mind that adults won’t always be present and children need to learn to guide their behavior on their own. Perhaps, in an attempt to get your child to do their homework, you’ve resorted to insistence, threats, or rewards. But not only is this not positive but, in the long run, it leaves that little one without the tools to manage their own motivation. So, what can you do to help them learn to be self-motivated? Keep reading to find out.

What is motivation?

The first step is to understand what motivation is. We can define it as the psychological or emotional process that drives an action. And it does this in two ways: By giving direction to the action and by injecting it with intensity, strength, and perseverance.

Think of your child playing their favorite game. They don’t hesitate, they know what they want, and they put all their resources into action to achieve it. And they do this naturally, without anyone having to insist, simply out of their own conviction. It would be fantastic if this degree of motivation were present in every daily task, but it’s not the case. Therefore, let’s dissect motivation to see what it’s composed of.

A little girl giving her mother a high five after completing a task.
When a child is motivated, they direct their behavior toward a goal or objective and do so with strength and determination.

What does motivation depend on?

We can understand that the motivation a child feels toward a task is determined by two components:

  1. The perceived value of the task: This refers to what way and to what degree they consider the activity to be useful. It may be simply because they find it to be fun, because it will save them work later, or because it will make them feel good or look good in front of others. In short, they perceive the task as having some value, function, or utility.
  2. Self-concept: This is the self-image the child has of themself with respect to the task or to what degree they believe they’ll be able to accomplish it. The more positive their self-concept in this regard, the greater their motivation to perform.

When demotivation occurs

When either (or both) of these two parameters fail, a lack of motivation becomes evident. It’s in those moments when the child doesn’t want to comply with the activity, but there can be different situations and reasons:

  • If the child knows they’re good at a task but don’t perceive interest or value in it, they’ll react by complaining about having to do it.
  • On the contrary, if an activity is perceived as very useful and necessary, but the child isn’t confident in their ability to perform it, they’ll feel anxious about it.
  • If the task is perceived as having little value and the child has a low self-concept, the result will be total apathy.

In short, it’s only when the child identifies the value of the activity and feels capable of completing it that motivation appears. For the same reason, it’s this state that we must help foster in them in order to teach them to be self-motivated.

How to teach children to be self-motivated

To teach children to be self-motivated, we must focus on the two previous factors. Here’s what you can do about it.

Help them perceive the value of the task

If the perceived value of the task is lacking, you can help the child to increase it in the following ways:

  • Seek to make the task a game. For example, if the child is young and lacks the motivation to pick up their room, you can make up a song to sing while the process is going on. If they’re a little older, you can use a stopwatch and form a little competition between siblings to see who picks up in the shortest amount of time.
  • Help them see the usefulness of the task. It’s difficult for children to visualize long-term consequences and they tend to focus on immediacy and instant gratification. So, for example, you can help them see that making their bed in the morning will allow them to have it ready for bedtime and that it’ll be more comfortable and enjoyable than if it’s messy.
  • Encourage them to anticipate future emotions. You can help them project into the future and see how they might feel. For example, they may not want to study now, but receiving good grades will make them feel successful, satisfied, and proud of themself.
A mother and daughter carrying a chair together.
Doing homework as a game and explaining to children the value of doing it will help them become self-motivated.

Build a good self-concept with them

On the other hand, if what prevents children from becoming self-motivated is their low self-concept, we can help them improve it. However, keep in mind that this isn’t unique and can vary depending on the activity. Therefore, your child may feel very confident in math, but not very skilled in music. So, remember to analyze each situation on a case-by-case basis. Despite this, there are several points that can help improve this self-perception:

  • Use communication to convey to your child positive messages about their abilities. “I really like your drawing, you’re very creative”, “you getting better at reading every day”, or “You’ve done a great job organizing your toys”. All these phrases are an encouragement to their confidence and shape their own internal dialogue.
  • Try to develop a growth mindset in them. That is, instill in them the idea that the result isn’t as important as the effort, that mistakes are part of the journey, and that perseverance leads to improvement. So, when they make a mistake or the activity doesn’t work out the first time, help them understand it as something natural and as an opportunity to improve.
  • Allow them to experience achievement. If your child has difficulty with a particular activity, help them practice with relatively simple tasks that are within their reach. Offer explanations and prompts and encourage your child to try until they achieve the accomplishment. It’s these small advances that will really build a good self-concept, as they’ll be based on successes that they’ve actually achieved by their own means.

Children learn self-motivation by example

As you can see, all of the above guidelines involve the help of an adult to provide motivation initially. However, little by little, the child will be able to make these tools their own and will learn self-motivation. Through practice and repetition, they’ll learn to foresee long-term consequences and not to focus on immediacy. They’ll know how to find their own ways to make an activity more entertaining and will be able to guide themselves when a task doesn’t work out the first time.

These lessons, although they require practice and patience, are extremely valuable strategies, as they help children to become more independent. A child who knows how to regulate their emotions and procedures to increase self-motivation is prepared to face challenges of all kinds. And, ultimately, this is what we seek with education: Autonomy so that they can navigate the world without needing us to be with them all the time.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.