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Finding ways to motivate your child

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Small children learning to balance encouraged by a teacher


When it comes to motivating our children, it’s easy to lavish them with praise – whether or not they’ve achieved something outstanding. 

Clinical psychologist Dr Danielle Einstein cautions that it’s important to choose our words carefully.

Dr Einstein says, apart from praising our child, it’s important that we are paying attention to what they’re doing and letting them know that we are attentive. Instead of saying, “You are the best artist ever!”, we could say, “I’m really proud of you. What kind of pencils did you use for this?”.

“When you’re trying to motivate your child, it’s more about the effort they’ve gone to. So, what we can do is make a comment or ask a question about what they’ve done. If they draw a picture you can say, “That’s really creative. What were you thinking when you drew that?”, she says.

“If you only comment, ‘That looks fantastic!’ what you’re doing is making a comment about the outcome. So, you’re giving them the impression that they need to produce something to a certain level for us to pay attention and get excited.

“What we all need to do in terms of kids and positive communication is actually make sure we’re thinking about what went into their activity and ask a question about what they’ve done. It’s all about changing the focus.”

When you’re trying to motivate your child, it’s more about the effort they’ve gone to. So, what we can do is make a comment or ask a question about what they’ve done.
Dr Danielle Einstein

Dr Einstein says there’s a scientific theory around that idea; that if we focus too much on outcomes we find that kids won’t want to do things that are more challenging.

It’s a theory that Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck wrote about after studying the behaviour of thousands of children.

Dr Dweck coined the terms ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’ when describing the beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. She found that when children believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger.

This means they’ll put in extra time and effort, which leads to higher achievement.

Dr Einstein says one of the experiments that Dr Dweck wrote about involved giving children a set of puzzles and then praising them for their work.

“For one group of kids she’d say, ‘Wow, that’s a really good score, you must be very good at this,’ and for the other group she said, ‘You must have tried really hard’.  

“Dr Dweck found that when she gave the kids the next lot of puzzles, the kids who’d been told ‘You’ve done really well’, will choose an easier puzzle while the kids who were told ‘You must have tried hard’ will choose something more challenging.”

Dr Einstein believes, as parents, our praise needs to be honest.

“Your child knows they’re not great at everything and you’re not hitting the spot if you’re just giving blank, positive praise.  It’s good to say, ‘I’m proud of you’, but you must focus back to the effort that they put in.”

Psychologist Dr Liz Westrupp from Deakin University says children are usually very good at reading between the lines and sometimes the tone of your voice is more important than the words you’ve chosen to use.

“It’s about considering your own beliefs as a parent and, if you really want your child to try hard and to value making an effort, then you should try and be consistent in regard to how you’re talking to your child,” Dr Westrupp says.

“This will vary by parents’ values. In terms of motivating kids, I think it’s about understanding how we can really harness intrinsic motivation in our children and sometimes that means following the child’s lead, watching what they’re interested in and having a talk around that activity.

“You don’t necessarily have to keep praising and rewarding them. They just don’t need that and it would result in the child looking for external rewards to continue with whatever the activity was. But if we’re just engaging with them and see what they’re interested in and just showing our own general interest and support, that’s probably the best way to motivate them.”

Psychologist Dr Jade Sheen from Deakin University suggests parents could make a conscious effort each day to say something positive or rewarding. But they should also be aware that sometimes our positive approach can trigger negative behaviour.

“It depends on the situation and on the child themselves but, sometimes it can be due to embarrassment for the child. With attention drawn to their behaviour it can sometimes be the case that they’re not used to the practice and they might find it difficult to accept praise,” Dr Sheen says.

“Adults would be able to reflect on the fact that sometimes praise makes adults feel uncomfortable, so it can feel the same way for children. Apart from that, sometimes kids just like to disagree with whatever their parent is telling them.”

Examples of positive motivation:

  • Instead of saying, “You’re so amazing!”  or “You’re the best at everything!” say, “I’m proud of you. You tried really hard at that.”
  • “You did really well, I could see how much you were concentrating.”
  • “Wow, you drew a picture. What can you tell me about it? I can see that’s a tree.”
  • “You’ve done really well. I can see how much thought you’ve put into it.”
  • “Well done, I know how you had to persist with that.”
  • “I’m proud of you, I could see how frustrating that was for you.”