With the world at a standstill, it is unsurprising that motivation has become hard to find. Lockdown has been all about a lack of forward momentum making feelings of loss of purpose totally normal.
Many years before the pandemic, when I was at school in London, I was regularly reminded by staff and my parents that I ‘could have tried harder’, ‘wasn’t reaching my potential’ and the familiar, ‘does enough to pass, but could do more’. Sadly, I internalised these phrases and labelled myself ‘unmotivated,’ an ‘underachiever’ and ‘not academic’. So began a self-fulfilling teenage prophecy. I appreciate that these sentiments were well-intentioned and aimed at giving me a kick up the backside. The problem is, they weren’t effective motivators. Fortunately for me, I shook these labels off in my early adulthood the more I explored my interests and discovered what really motivated me.
Since those rocky teenage years, I have journeyed deep into the world of child development. I have gathered insights, grown my own awareness and learned strategies that better support children to tap into their inherent self-belief, joy for learning, curiosity and creativity – all of which make up important elements of their motivation.
There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. We are intrinsically motivated when we do something for its own sake, for the joy or challenge and satisfaction it can provide, rather than being incentivised by some specific outcome or reward.
This does a disservice to cultivating intrinsic motivation. As the late, great Sir Ken Robinson said in his book The Element, “[finding your] element is about discovering yourself, and you can’t do this if you’re trapped in a compulsion to conform.”
Without an awareness of their intrinsic motivators, children risk becoming indoctrinated with the belief that putting in the effort is only worth it if it produces some specific result. Extrinsic motivation isn’t all bad, but a balance is required. Otherwise children will learn to suppress their innate curiosities and disempower themselves by allowing their self-worth to rely purely on externalised forms of validation.
As a parent you can help. Celebrate effort rather than specific outcomes. Avoid incentivising uniquely through rewards. Invite open conversations that develop an awareness of what lights a fire in your child’s belly.
Behaviour as communication
Labelling a child as ‘unmotivated’, ‘lazy’ or ‘not very academic’ is commonplace and a disaster. All it does is create disconnection and disengagement. Understanding behaviour as an attempt to communicate a feeling, or to meet a need or longing, helps us move away from being reactive to being responsive. Simply pausing for a moment to enquire in this way radically transforms how we relate to one another. It opens up the possibility to explore with a child what their actions are really trying to communicate.
Panksepp’s Emotional Systems
Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp identified seven ‘emotional systems’ in our brain that are shared by other mammals – Rage, Panic / Grief, Care, Play, Seeking & Lust. These drive our behaviour and motivate us to act to meet our various emotional needs. The ‘granddaddy’ of the emotional systems is our Seeking system. This is our motivational engine. This seeking system underpins a child’s enthusiasm, willpower, drive and energised engagement for life.
If any of these systems are over-active or under-active, they can prevent us from engaging optimally in the world. We develop these emotional systems as we journey through life and they are affected by everything we encounter, particularly during our upbringing. A great place to start therefore, is to develop an awareness around how events in a child’s life have impacted the development of their emotional systems. From there, we can start to understand what might be holding them back from engaging optimally in the present day and what to do about it.
Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy – PACE is a therapeutic approach worth knowing about as a parent. It was developed by Psychotherapist Dr Dan Hughes and provides a way of thinking, feeling, communicating and behaving (i.e. ‘responding’) to a child that helps them to feel safe and supported in any given situation. Dr Hughes initially developed the model to support children who, because of their life circumstances, had deficits in their emotional, cognitive and behavioural development. However, the basic principles help nurture secure relationships with any child or young person. This is important to motivation as it’s through secure relationships that we develop a healthy sense of self and learn to be motivated by healthy drivers, rather than by fear, stress or anxiety, as examples.
Five ways to wellbeing
If our mental, emotional physical and spiritual wellbeing underpins our capacity for motivation, then it pays to intentionally tend to our holistic health. The NHS’s Five Ways to Wellbeing is a helpful framework to identify which areas in your child’s life might need more nurturing to help them feel energised and driven. It’s like tending to a garden. Regular watering and care in these five areas will help your child tap into their motivation and healthy development:
- Connection – feeling close to and valued by others
- Being active – regular physical activity
- Taking notice – practicing gratitude and being in the present moment
- Continued learning – for the joy of it, not out of compulsion!
- Giving – having a sense of meaning and purpose
I hope the reflections offered above provide a basis from which to conduct your own personal compassionate enquiries with your child. See their behaviour as communication and look beyond the actions to what is really wanting to be expressed. Motivation arises differently for each of us. Through conscious reflective practice and healthy connection with others, children will cultivate healthy habits that nurture self-trust, self-awareness and be guided by their own passions and curiosities.
About the author: Max Girardeau is a director of The Visionaries, a social enterprise helping to grow a more nurturing education system, where young people are supported to transition into healthy adulthood with the help of their community.
If you enjoyed this article, you might like to read “The role of tutoring in building confidence.”