Self-motivation is the skill that enables one to reach a desired goal. Self-motivation includes delaying gratification, working with determination, paying attention, and rejecting impulsiveness. All of us are familiar with people who were super smart, but didn’t really achieve much. I’ve had students in class that could outperform their peers, but didn’t have the self-motivation to do so. They just didn’t have an internal reason to do their work. On the other hand, we all know people who by sheer determination conquered amazing odds and reached their goals. (See True Story Frank and Francis here)
Why self-motivation is important:
- Those who motivate themselves do far better than those who have to be motivated by others
- A self-motivated person will resist impulses that sidetrack him from his goal
- Will forego the immediate treat in favor of a more significant reward later
- Self-motivation results in paying attention and listening in class
- Self-motivation rises out of optimism, confidence, and passion for achievement
- A self-motivated person will work endlessly in pursuit of excellence
- Will not accept the idea of failure but will persist in overcoming obstacles
The development of self-motivation:
1 Teach patience
I think one of the hardest things about being a parent is to resist the temptation to make things too easy for our children. It starts very early. I think probably every baby in a high chair will at some point find that dropping their spoon onto the floor is fun. Our natural reaction is to quickly retrieve the spoon and return it to the tray. Multiple times. This starts a very entertaining game for the baby; he quickly learns that if he drops his spoon on the floor, Mom or Dad will jump to retrieve it. This little scenario is a perfect time to begin to teach baby about patience. Instead of rushing to return the dropped spoon, wait a few beats. He will learn that if he drops something, it will be on the floor and not available to him. This is a very friendly first lesson in consequences to actions – cause and effect.
If little tot comes into the kitchen asking for a snack, explain that you are almost finished filling the dishwasher and just as soon as you finish, you will be happy to get him a snack. If you are in a conversation with another person and your little one begins to talk, draw them close to you with your arm, but teach them to wait their turn to speak. Some parents teach their child to interrupt by saying “Excuse me” loudly, but while it sounds nice for them to say excuse me, they still are interrupting, right? We can teach our children to be gracious in polite society, how to converse with skill by teaching them very early to wait for their turn in the conversation. If you truly want your child to wait his turn to speak, make sure he gets that turn and that you include him in the conversation. This will be a powerful lesson in how to listen to others and speak in turn.
If your child really wants a particular toy, engage him in a savings program. Suggest a little chore he is able to do to help out at home and let him earn a bit for doing this extra job. Make saving his money a desirable endeavor by sharing his excitement as he sees the coins begin to add up. You could use a clear jar in which to save money and use masking tape to mark where the coins need to reach for him to be able to purchase the toy. Or you could affix a strip of masking tape to his table or a shelf and have him stick the coins he earns to the tape side by side. When the tape is full, YAY, he gets the toy!
The point is to set goals that require some patience and persistence, delay of gratification until the goal is achieved. To set a goal that is too easy won’t work, nor is it wise to make the goal too difficult for the age of your child.
A skill you can teach that will prove to be invaluable to your child when he’s grown is to not give up when he’s failed at something a few times. Encourage him in his early attempts as a very young child to try again and again when he wants to do something and is struggling. Be there with him and cheer him on, showing your deep excitement for his effort, even if he fails. Praise his attempts and encourage him to not give up.
Patience is foundational to success in reaching goals that require self-discipline, delaying gratification, persistence, and effort.
2 Learn what matters to your child
A second important task for parents is to find out what your child’s natural bent is. This will involve years of noticing little things – that early attunement continued into childhood. Each child comes equipped with natural talent and abilities that we can discover and nurture. No two children are alike!
Once we understand our child’s giftedness, we can mirror that information back to him and encourage the development of those natural gifts. Most importantly, knowing where his giftedness lies will enable the child choose goals in life he’s willing to work and sacrifice for. Finding out what is important to him will result in self-motivation.
True story: Tom
Self-Motivation – the root of success against all odds
Several years ago in a school where I worked with Title 1 children (failing in school, but not qualifying for special education), was a 7th grade boy I came to know pretty well. Tom had a sweet personality, seemed smart, stayed out of trouble, but was completely lacking in motivation to do his work. His very frustrated and discouraged parents had seen him go in and then out of a special education program early in his elementary years, but in spite of testing out of special education, his performance remained minimal – chalk it up to “laziness.” His parents and teachers seemed to.
Tom’s consistent position was that he didn’t NEED to do well in school. His plan, his desire in life, was to be a manager at Burger King, and he was smart enough to know that if he remained adamant on this plan for his life, no adult would be able to show him a reason to perform well in school.
It is nearly impossible for me to accept that something cannot be fixed or made better, so one day I invited Tom into my office to talk. I earnestly shared with him that I knew he was smart. I believed in him. Tom shrugged politely. I persisted, asking him questions and making plea after plea. Tom finally began to talk and shared with me that being in special education had convinced him that he is not smart enough to do anything really important. I, of course, said that he could do anything he would set his mind to, but he had to try harder than he was. He smiled and shared with me as he had done many times before, that he was satisfied; he was going to manage a Burger King restaurant and was not really going to need college anyway. I suspected Tom had chosen this career to get people like me off his back. I told him stubbornly that I just couldn’t believe he would aspire to this job as the most exciting thing he could imagine to do with his life. He insisted it was. We went back and forth like this for a while getting no place.
Then in desperation I asked, “Tom, if you could put out of your mind anything anyone has ever told you, if you could imagine the most perfect thing to do, that would be the most interesting – if there were no obstacles at all to your doing this thing, if you could wave a magic wand and make it happen, what would it be?” Much to my surprise, Tom’s complacency vanished. He sat up straight in his chair and asked, “ANYTHING?” I said yes.
Without any hesitation at all, Tom said he would work in Asia in some field involving cutting edge technology. BINGO! There was his answer and it was super specific. Finally I saw the dream Tom had buried under the years of failure and adult displeasure. “Tom, you can totally do this,” I flatly stated. “You will have to get a college degree, though. And getting into college means you are going to have to start making decent grades now.”
I’ve never witnessed a more dramatic change in a person in my life. Tom turned on a dime. He not only began to study, he did his homework, he contributed in class, asked questions, and began to make good grades. None of this behavior can be forced on a child – it has to flow from his own heart in the service of something that child truly wants. As days passed, I still struggled to catch up with the incredibly abrupt change in Tom. He was transformed from the polite but slouchy sleepy-eyed boy I’d come to know and care for into a boy who was alert and more energetic.
In the meantime, my attention had been caught by Tony, a 5th grader who got thrown out of class nearly every day. Tony was failing, defiant, always getting into trouble, and spending way too much time in the office. His teacher said he was sick of dealing with him; was sick of Tony ruining class for everyone else. So one day when Tom arrived early for our session in math, I impulsively told him that there was a younger boy that needed help. Would he be willing to spend time him? Would he invest some of his free time in tutoring Tony in math and then become his friend and find out what he really wanted in life? Tom quickly agreed. I cleared this for Tom with the principal and his teachers. Honestly, they were willing to agree to ANYTHING, especially if it involved someone doing something about Tony! I promised to supervise the duo. So Tom began to tutor the Tony; he was so patient and earnest in explaining math to Tony, but I also could overhear some of their conversations. Tom was already passing on to his new friend some advice he felt would help him stay out of trouble. Coming from an older boy, the advice was well received.
Self-motivation will flow out of a desire that resides deep in the heart of a child. It is worth everything to help him find that desire, and then give him the freedom to go for it.
When challenge is not appropriate
I’ve known parents who wanted so badly for their children to excel that they set the bar extremely high and relentlessly pushed and prodded and pressured their child to reach the goal. Many well meaning parents demand that their children get all A’s in school no matter their child’s learning style or the subject. These parents cannot bring themselves to accept a B in anything. Obviously they want their children well prepared for life, but the truth of the matter is that doing well in school (grades) is not a true predictor of success in life. Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence suggested that if every child were equally super good at school, we would produce thousands of children who were well prepared to be college professors. But where is the value in that? We’d lose out on our super star athletes, our designers, our systems managers, and all the other myriad careers that benefit our world.
In addition, goals chosen by parents which are not goals shared by the child end up requiring external motivation that drives the child forward. This kind of situation could potentially discourage the child and exhaust and frustrate Mom and Dad.
Find out first, by studying your child, what his natural areas of interest are. Encourage those areas in which he excels. For some it might be a physical talent like playing sports. For others it might be visual arts, for others it might be interpersonal relationships. Make it your goal to discover your child’s natural bent, their area of talent, and come along side to encourage and strengthen those gifts. Doing this will mean all of you are working in concert with the amazing design your child was born with.