Motivating children through purpose

Parent-teacher conferences are held this time of the year. This can be a stressful time for both parents and children. When parents attend these meetings and learn that their child is not doing well, they are often at a loss as to how to help their child improve.


Teachers may say things like, “He needs to learn his math facts” or “She needs to do her homework”. Unfortunately for many parents, simply learning about the areas where their child is struggling is not enough to automatically know what to do next or how to help their child be more successful.

There are different ways to “motivate” children to become better students. I believe parents motivate children most successfully by creating an atmosphere that promotes self-motivation. This requires finding the “hook” for learning that resonates for that particular individual student.

Some parents believe that intimidation and fear tactics help motivate children to perform better. This may work in the short-term, but it certainly will not sustain motivation and it may eventually create resentment. This is the “do it or else” parenting method and many strong willed children rebel against this approach. Attempting to strong arm a child to do what is expected of them sets up a series of power struggles that will interfere with the parent-child connection and will not likely result in the desired outcome.

Another approach is to bribe children to improve performance through rewards and consequences. In this approach, parents may offer to pay children to earn the better grades. This may result in the desired outcome in the short-term, but what happens once the rewards are removed? These children will grow up to expect a prize for their performance instead of experiencing internal rewards from hard work and subsequent positive outcomes.

The most effective way to help children reach their goals and become internally motivated is to teach them about purpose. Humans are naturally curious and therefore making the connection between the intrinsic value of learning and purpose is not difficult, especially when grades and performance are not overemphasized and learning is seen as the ultimate goal. When helping children become more engaged in learning and therefore better students, parents should help children understand how and why learning is important for them. Examples of why learning is important for children include: It requires children to use their intelligence and apply themselves fully, which leads to a sense of pride, accomplishment and joy when confronted with challenges; being a good student means that children will be comfortable taking risks, participating in class and trying new tasks; being a strong student will allow them to be independent, and able to apply their skills and feel confident when navigating the world at large; as a strong student, they will develop skills that allow them to help others who struggle in school; and being a strong student will make it more likely that they associate with other like-minded, curious and capable people.

While it may seem daunting to motivate children by teaching them about how learning relates to their own internal purpose, doing this teaches children to take ownership over their choices and behavior. It is a long-term solution and not a short–term or quick fix.

Here are four ways to proceed:

1. Role model purpose. Parents who want to motivate children through internal purpose will have an advantage when they are able to demonstrate this through their own actions. Put simply, live an intentional life where hard work and effort result in feeling positive, even when the goals are not always met the first time around or quickly.

2. State the purpose. Have your child define who they want to be and how they want to live, and help them to identify how they can achieve this through their daily actions, and what they need to learn in order to accomplish their dreams.

3. Explain why. Some children will not always readily make the connection between geometry homework and reaching their goal of being a strong thinker or getting into college or developing some other practical life skills. Parents have to fill in the gaps and make the connections about why and how certain activities are essential for them to reach their larger life goals.

4. Reflect back. When your child demonstrates hard work, even doing something as simple as helping you carry the groceries, reflect this back to them in a manner that allows them to see their own abilities. You can say something like, “Those grocery bags are heavy and I am amazed that you were able to carry them inside.” This allows the child to make the attribution internally between their behavior and their physical strength, resulting in thoughts like “I’m really strong,” which come from within and not from outside themselves.

Parents are often discouraged when they learn that their child is underperforming in school. As difficult as it is to confront underachievement, it is an opportunity to focus on a child’s character and help him to develop internal motivation that will serve him well beyond school work and into all aspects of his life.

Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist on the North Shore. Follow her on, or