Can You Boost Intrinsic Motivation In Kids? Experts Weigh In

Sharon Brandwein

September 13, 2022

Most parents can think back to a time when their toddlers happily helped them empty the dishwasher or “fold” the laundry. Kids often delight in these types of things because, for them, it’s just fun. 

Fast forward a few short years, and most kids prefer to be as far away from the laundry and dishes as possible—and you can bet they will make it known. Getting them to do any chore is almost always a tit for tat kind of deal. 

Ahead we’ll take a closer look at the first of these two drivers of behavior, which is known as intrinsic motivation. We explore what intrinsic motivation is, why it’s important, and we offer some tips for parents who want to boost intrinsic motivation in their kids.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is doing a task or activity for its inherent satisfaction. It’s when someone engages in an activity because they find it enjoyable, fun, or rewarding. Intrinsic motivation differs from extrinsic motivation, which is when we participate in an activity or complete a task because we want to earn a reward or avoid punishment. 

Reena Patel, educational psychologist and behavioral analyst, further explains, “Internal Motivation comes from within, and the outcomes satisfy your basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.”

Examples of intrinsic motivation: 

Examples of extrinsic motivation

Why is intrinsic motivation important?

Intrinsic motivation is often taken for granted, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that intrinsically motivated kids are more likely to be successful in life. That’s because not only are intrinsically motivated kids more likely to be creative and innovative, but they’re also more likely to have a growth mindset, persevere in the face of adversity, and see the upside of failure. 

Patel says, “Intrinsic motivation is a more effective long-term method for achieving goals and completing tasks in a way that makes you feel fulfilled. While extrinsic motivation is helpful in certain situations, it may eventually lead to burnout or lose effectiveness over time.” 

Can parents boost intrinsic motivation in kids? 

While kids often start out being intrinsically motivated, extrinsic motivation is a learned behavior (think about rewards for potty training or earning stickers in school for good behavior). The good news for parents is that all is not lost once their kids hit a certain age. Parents can boost intrinsic motivation in their kids; here’s how.  

Be supportive 

The first thing parents can do to boost intrinsic motivation is to maintain a supportive home environment where kids feel empowered and safe to explore the world around them and exercise their independence. 

Parents can also help kids identify new interests and passions and support them when they do. Whether it’s cheering them on from the sidelines or shuttling them to and from practice, being supportive makes a huge difference. 

Professor Daniel Levy, head of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the Reichman University (IDC Herzliya), says “As far as encouraging children to pursue their interests, intuitively it seems that the role parents play is to help the children overcome initial disappointments on the road to competence that makes the activity self-motivating.”

Praise effort rather than wins

Positive reinforcement can be a great motivator, but parents should keep in mind that positive reinforcement shouldn’t be limited to concrete wins and accomplishments. Praising your child’s efforts is just as important, and it’s a great way to build their confidence. 

Encourage autonomy

When kids have a sense of control over what they’re doing or learning, their intrinsic motivation will naturally get a boost. To that end, think about giving your little one options that allow them to take ownership of tasks (i.e., let them pick between emptying the dishwasher or sweeping the floor or let them choose the book they want to read from the library). 

Parents can also encourage autonomy by working with their kids to set or establish goals. 

Limiting extrinsic motivators

It’s no secret that extrinsic motivators work, and they work well. The good news is you don’t have to abandon extrinsic motivators completely, but you may want to think about limiting their use. Opting for celebrations over tangible rewards will go a long way toward helping your child recognize their own feelings of pride and satisfaction. Ultimately, your child will want to hold on to that feeling or consistently repeat the behavior to recapture the feeling. 

Don’t push

While it’s in every parent’s nature to push when it comes to their kids, sometimes pushing can be counterproductive. To keep things moving in the right direction, parents should think about taking a passive role in boosting their kid’s intrinsic motivation. 

In other words, kids can be an enigma, and if we get too excited or show too much interest, they might lose theirs—so, play it cool.

There’s more where that came from…