How to motivate your kid and help them to succeed


Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual and is driven by the desire for internal rewards, e.g. satisfaction from solving a puzzle on their own. — Filepic

Do you usually give your child a reward for getting good grades at school?

This is one way to motivate him to achieve a certain objective.

But what is the best approach to motivate your child?

Motivation is the process or cause that drives our behaviour and directs our choices.

It comes from the Latin word movere, meaning “to move”, i.e. it moves us to reach our goals in life.

Every parent wants their kids to succeed and a strong motivation is crucial for that purpose.

Intrinsic vs extrinsic

Many theories have been proposed to explain motivation.

According to the incentive theory, motivation can be divided into two:

  • Intrinsic motivation, which comes from within the individual who is driven to gain internal rewards such as satisfaction, excitement or self-improvement. For example, studying a subject because you find it fascinating or solving a puzzle to challenge yourself.
  • Extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside the individual and involves external rewards such as good grades, money, prizes or praise. For example, studying because you want good grades or solving a puzzle for a prize.
Intrinsic motivation is often regarded to be more advantageous than extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsically-motivated children tend to participate more actively in class and are able to gain a deeper understanding of new topics.

Such motivation is also more sustainable, leads to long-term changes and contributes to better psychological wellbeing.

The different effect of the two motivations has been demonstrated in numerous studies.

In one study, a group of preschool children was told they would be rewarded with a nice certificate if they do a drawing activity.

Two other groups were given the reward as a surprise after the activity or not given anything respectively.

The first group was significantly less interested in the activity, compared to the two other groups.

This phenomenon is known as the overjustification effect, where offering excessive external rewards can reduce intrinsic motivation if the behaviour itself is already internally rewarding.

In the mentioned study, the drawing activity conducted is usually considered fun (an intrinsic motivation) by children.

A “play” activity may feel like “work” when rewards are offered, thus reducing the fun factor.

However, this does not mean that extrinsic motivation does not play a role in child development.

When implemented strategically, it can encourage children to participate in activities they are otherwise not interested in or motivate them to pick up new skills.

External rewards can also be used as feedback to let them know they have performed a task on a level that deserves recognition.

Nurturing intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is present as early as infancy, as babies display curiosity towards novel objects and events.

You can start nurturing such motivation in your children from young with these tips.

> Stimulate curiosity

One of the hardest things to do as parents is to allow your child to explore and take risks on her own.

As long as it is reasonable, let her lead and decide what she wants to do.

When your toddler intentionally throws something on the floor or takes something apart, she is actually trying to learn the effect of her actions.

It also teaches children that mistakes and failures are important aspects of learning.

Curiosity and exploration extend throughout childhood (and should continue into adulthood too!) and can really motivate independent learning.

> Encourage play

Play inspires learning as it is already innately motivating.

Play positively and emotionally enriches any experience.

It prompts active participation and reduces stress, which are crucial to maintain one’s motivation.

> Promote self-determination

When assigning your child a task, give choices whenever possible and be flexible.

Let him decide how he wants to do it.

He will be more motivated and engaged when he is an active participant, and the task becomes personally meaningful.

> Break down goals

Smaller goals are easier to achieve, leading to steady successes.

This fosters a growth mindset and promotes self-perpetuating intrinsic motivation.

Your child will also learn how to work towards their ultimate goal by first setting shorter term goals.

This nurtures a healthy work ethic that will go a long way in their life.

> Praise the process

Praise becomes a verbal reward if you only focus on the end result.

But by praising your child’s effort and perseverance, it reaffirms that effort is more important in one’s success than ability or talent alone.

The values nurtured by all these strategies can help your child develop the persistence, grit and courage it takes to achieve what is important to him or her.

That is intrinsic motivation.

Nevertheless, this is not to say that extrinsic motivation has no role to play in motivating your child.

As your child’s mentor, understand how both types of motivation can affect her behaviour and learn to integrate them to bring out the best in her.

It is important to remember, however, that if she is not achieving certain goals despite her best efforts, you may need to consult an expert to identify if there is an obstacle, e.g. a learning disability or developmental disorder that may need extra support.


Dr Cindy Chan Su Huay is a developmental and behavioural paediatrician. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. For further information, please email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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