Intrinsic Motivation in Children

When my son was 5 years old, we were invited to a little boy’s birthday party at a martial arts studio. We reached a few minutes late. As we entered the studio, the children were already mid-session with a master who seemed to be yelling. My son, having seen nothing like this, was quite taken aback. So much, that he stopped in his tracks at the entrance to the studio. He stood there observing for a couple of minutes before we ushered him toward a bench on the side. He sat there in complete silence, intensely focused, observing the master and the students. I saw his little face and body relax, as he realized that the master was quite friendly, just with a very loud voice. My husband asked him, “Would you like to participate?” He replied, “No, I want to sit here and watch.” We didn’t press the issue any further.My son and another girl, slightly older, were the only two kids sitting on the sidelines, along with the parents. The other girl looked very upset, quiet tears flowing down her cheeks. It seemed that her mother had been trying to convince her to participate, but she didn’t want to. Finally frustrated, the mother said, loud enough that we could hear, “Why won’t you just go in? Just go there! It looks fun! I am so ashamed!” The daughter did not budge. She hung her head and cried as she ran past us. Her mother ran after her, shaking her head. A couple of well-meaning adults then walked past us and tried to coax my son into participating. “You don’t want to go in? Go have some fun! All the children are there, see?” My son did not budge.

With just five minutes left of the class, my son suddenly jumped up in excitement, his face all lit up, and said, “I want to go in!” And that’s exactly what he did. The master gave him a spot and he proceeded to have a really fun five minutes going through an obstacle course. The session ended, we sang happy birthday, had some cake and went home. A couple of days later, my son said to me, with much excitement in his voice, “Ma, I want to join that class! Can you put me in martial art class? It was so much fun!”  

The next several months my son enjoyed those classes very much. As I waited on the sidelines for each class to be done, the instructors often came over to me and commented, “Your son is so focused. He is a pleasure to teach.” Other parents occasionally told me, “You are so lucky! Your son is able to listen so well! I put my kid in martial arts so he would learn to focus and listen. But it doesn’t seem to be working.” We only stopped the classes when we moved to another country a few months later and my son kept going to class till the very last week of our move.

When I was about the same age, my parents took me to a new dance class for try-outs (my previous dance class shut down). The teacher asked me to show what I already knew. He had his students clear the dance floor and sit down. I stood in the middle, all eyes focussed on me, while the teacher tried his level best to convince me to dance. I would have none of it. I stood there like a statue, not uttering a word or moving a muscle. Kudos to my parents, they did not yell at me – they simply took me back to the class a few more times without the pressure of forcing me to dance. Kudos to the teacher also, who may have understood what I was going through, because he asked me to stand at the back of the class the next time and dance whatever I could. It was only then that I felt safer opening myself up to a room full of strangers. Now, as an adult, I know what was going on in my mind but didn’t as a child, of course. I simply didn’t feel safe taking the risk earlier. I needed to feel ready on my time, not on other people’s time.

I have also experienced this many times during my years of teaching dance to children and adults alike. I never force new students to start dancing right away, if they are not inclined. I assure the child that they can sit and watch and join the class when they feel ready. This has never failed me. When they do join the class, they are ready to go.

I understood that mother’s frustration because I’ve been there myself. I also understood the daughter’s frustration because I had seen it in both myself as a child and my own son before I learnt to take deep pauses in my journey as a parent.

Once my husband and I learnt this, we stopped trying to convince our child to try new experiences on our terms and let him lead on his terms. Our job is exposure and it ends there. Our child’s job is to choose that experience or not at all. Once we started seeing things this way, our child opened himself up to new experiences – on his own terms. He realized that we trusted his internal process of determining if and when he was ready. We travel extensively with our son and have watched him lead us into things that we would have never tried otherwise. But, if you judged him at age one by the fact that he was once afraid of going near waterfalls, fountains and ocean waves, you’d have never trusted that he was capable of some of the experiences he chose later in his life, of his own free will, when he was ready for it.

This also means that there will be times when they really don’t want to choose an experience, and we have to learn to accept that as well. Building trust with our children cannot be subjective, only being wielded when it aligns with our own ideas.

Bear in mind that I am not talking about situations when it is necessary to hold a boundary for a valid reason. E.g. anything related to health or safety, like when my son had to get stitches after he cut his eyebrow. Or we need to be at the bus stop or airport at a certain time. Or following through on a commitment they chose. But this is no different for us – the rules have to be the same.

My point is that we allow ourselves to choose whether we want to learn guitar or karate, whether we want to go to or stay at a party or not, whom we socialize with, how we spend our free time, but our children are often not given these choices. Somehow, we have normalized this idea that it is a right we’ve earned by becoming an adult.

Intrinsic motivation is the inner drive that fuels a person to pursue an activity. It is either the internal sense of challenge and satisfaction resulting from doing the activity and/or the joy of doing it. It is the opposite of extrinsic motivation – which is done for either a reward or avoidance of punishment – which could be as simple yet powerful as the parent’s disappointment. Children who are allowed to be intrinsically motivated in their pursuits are more likely to excel at things they choose because they want to and this brings out their best effort naturally. I honestly don’t know a single child who is allowed this freedom and has not tried anything at all. It just doesn’t happen.

Understanding this renders immense benefits to our children (and us) – it also gives them a chance to practice risk assessment. It requires us to step back and give them time to practice this skill. In the process, we learn to accept our children for who they really are and help them unfold their best versions, instead of trying to sculpt them into something we want them to be.

Unfortunately, traditional norms often force children into being pushed on grown-ups (well-meaning) agendas from the beginning, often born out of our own deep-seated fears of hypothetical future failure scenarios, so much, that they don’t realize that they are capable of so much more. Neither do they get the opportunity to realize that they are capable of risk assessment and getting themselves ready for an activity they choose. They come to depend on their grown-ups for the risk assessment and the external validation, so much, that it can introduce insecurity where there was none. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – us parents then get convinced that this is the right way.

Instead of allowing childhood to be a wonderful time of exploration and discovery, stumbles and opportunities to practice getting up from a fall, it becomes a schedule of must-dos and to-dos, with no room for mistakes, through which children can lose the ability to figure out what they might be really good at, having to work on becoming good at what parents choose for them. We also find ourselves feeling frustrated when there is a misalignment between what we choose for them and what they are naturally good at.

I now know that my son was naturally focused and attentive in his martial arts class because, while we exposed him to the activity, he chose it and wanted to explore it further. I can say with confidence that if we had coaxed him to step into the lesson before he felt ready, it would not have resulted in him asking to take lessons. 

If you’ve ever watched a young child at play, you will realize very quickly that there is no harder working human on the planet than a child doing an activity that is freely self-chosen. I’ve watched dozens of toddlers, preschoolers and kindergarteners digging load after a load of sand, filling up wheelbarrows, pulling them uphill, building structures, bridges and forts, figuring out all the problems along the way with a determination that cannot be taught. Never have I seen a more hardworking and motivated group as young children when allowed to follow their interests and learn at their own pace.

This is the capability we are all born with – true intrinsic motivation, the capability for genius, hard work, grit and determination. But somewhere along the way, it gets stamped out of us by repeatedly being told exactly what to do and how to do it. Slowly but surely, we chip away at these innate abilities children are born with, without meaning to. Children may not be aware of it, but they are able to access their highest potential in whatever it is they choose freely. We need to be able to step back, attune to that, and see it for ourselves. However, we cannot do that until we perceive our relationship with our children as one-sided – where they only do what we tell them to.

I have realized through my journey as a teacher and a parent, that our job is not to squeeze our children into a one-size-fits-all box but to build the most authentic relationship with them, and ourselves, so that they may live their lives to their potential and we, ours. I am here to learn and support who they authentically are, to expose them to possibilities and opportunities in the world, acknowledge and scaffold through the tough times, but most certainly not shape, mould or cast my child in my image. So that they are free to unfold into the best version of themselves. Living their best possible life, every day.

Divya Rangarajan

Divya Rangarajan is the mother of Vikram Raju from Dynamic Dolphins. Her love of learning started at an early age. It led her to pursue a career in Computer Science, with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and Virginia Tech. She spent several years at Amazon in Seattle, helping build its world-class customer support system. During that time, her childhood passion for Bharatanatyam led her to join the From Within Academy in Seattle. As her teaching responsibilities at From WIthin grew, she was intrigued by the different ways young children with different personalities and temperaments learn, and how different it was from how we learn as adults. This interest deepened when her son Vikram was born and gained momentum with her experiences as a parent-teacher at the Woodland Park Cooperative School in Seattle. Through these experiences, she has come to believe that parenting is mainly about building an authentic relationship with your children, and that children are born with immense motivation to learn anything they set their minds to. She now works to uncover the best ways to build deep connections with your children and preserve that natural-born motivation. She communicates her learnings from this journey on her blog (https://www.afistfulofcalm.com/https://www.facebook.com/afistfulofcalm).

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