I hear this question more often than any other; “How do I motivate my child to learn?” Motivating a child can seem like a daunting task but rather than seeing your child as a vessel needing to be filled, see them as a person reaching out towards what interests them. Help your child develop a love for learning by encouraging them to take the lead.
Discover what sparks your child's curiosity
Ask a lot of questions
Get on their eye level
Make plenty of eye contact
And smile, learning is fun!
Once you've identified what your child enjoys, use the information to anchor a lesson. For example, say your 8-year old daughter loves butterflies. Delight her with a trip to a nature center where she'll see butterflies hovering over wild flowers. Together, take the time to observe and wonder. Ask open-ended questions and let your daughter share her perspective. Dramatically point out something that sparks your curiosity. Alternatively, you can also think out loud; “Wow, that Giant Swallowtail’s wings are enormous; it reminds me of a bird! Did you see? I am amazed how gracefully it glides despite its size.”
The child is listening and absorbing while you are modeling enjoyment of the learning process. This ‘think aloud’ is her first introduction to thinking about her own thoughts and it’s the first step towards metacognition, or simply put ‘thinking about our thinking.’ Follow up with a trip to the library where you can choose books about different butterflies and research answers to questions that intrigued you both earlier on.
"How often do our children look for external rewards when the real reward is right before them?"
The True Reward
How different is this approach from giving out stickers and prizes?! You may think you motivated your child to learn, when, in reality, you simply diverted their attention, motivating your child to seek out prizes. They may open a book to learn about butterflies but incentives shifted their focus from learning to getting the prize.
Consider the following scenario; “Mom, I’m done studying for my Chumash quiz! Can I get a piece of candy?!” How often do our children look for external rewards when the real reward is right before them? The child's preparedness for the quiz and the knowledge gained will be their true reward. If you still want to give the child a piece of candy, let them get the candy separately and not as a reward.
"Ultimately, we want the child to be motivated by the learning process and by the desire to acquire knowledge."
Extrinsic Vs. Intrinsic Motivation
This is the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation– extrinsic motivation being the desire to receive an external reward for a completed task versus intrinsic motivation; the innate need to know and understand. Ultimately, we want the child to be motivated by the learning process and by the desire to acquire knowledge.
In reality, there are many other factors which drive motivation, not just the need of satisfying our natural curiosity or acquiring rewards. Motivation can also be relationship driven; the child’s desire for you to like them, accept them, approve of their behavior, etc. They’ll do what they can to please you. Or perhaps it is fear and avoidance of punishment; the child will do what needs to be done just to keep out of trouble. Punishment or fear of disappointing a loved one would also fall under this category.
All of the above, however, would fall under extrinsic motivation, doing A to receive or B to avoid. Intrinsic motivation is the internal and personal drive motivated by the actual thing we are seeking.
Are there times when stickers and prizes are necessary? Of course! We all have moments when are our internal engine needs some extra fuel to fire it up. Our job is to not silence the intrinsic desire to learn and making learning all about the prize store.