Have you ever thought about your child’s future and said something like, “I don’t mind if they’re never rich and famous so long as they’re happy”? Some parents want their children to feel good about themselves first; some adults will teach their children that self-worth comes from reaching goals. In fact, a good sense of self-esteem is an essential component of motivation; unhappy children are unlikely to want success or even believe they can be successful. Psychologists suggest that, rather than a healthy sense of self-esteem coming from motivation and achievement, it’s the other way around.
Much current research into motivation is based on self-determination theory (selfdeterminationtheory.org), which assumes that human beings are naturally motivated to explore and develop, but that this natural drive can be enhanced or diminished by external factors such as family, society, and culture.
Self-determination theory suggests that motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. In other words, people can be motivated to learn and develop, either because of the pleasure or sense of achievement they get from the activity itself (intrinsic) or because of rewards or consequences that are separate from the activity (extrinsic). Picking up a book in a store because it looks interesting is an example of intrinsic motivation. Buying a book to study and pass an exam is an extrinsically motivated action. Neither of these is “better,” but parents and teachers understand that people who are more intrinsically motivated will need less prompting or encouragement to learn.
Three factors affect an individual’s level of motivation: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Each of these is a basic need for human beings, and whether they are met or frustrated will affect that person’s motivation. Competence is the drive to feel able and successful. Autonomy means having control of your own life, being able to “be yourself.” Relatedness is the human need to interact with others and form relationships.
Parents build up their children’s self-esteem and self-worth by providing appropriate praise, giving suitable levels of responsibility for the child’s age and developmental stage, and by showing unconditional love and regard. Each of these is closely related to the needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
When a child is praised for having done well, their need for competence is met. It’s important not to over-praise or to say a child has done well when it’s clear they haven’t. A child who is unsure whether praise is genuine will find it more difficult to satisfy the need for competence later in life. You need to be clear that you’re praising the child, not the action. If a child brings you a drawing, telling them “You’re very good at drawing” builds esteem and meets the need for competence in a way that “It’s a very good drawing.” does not.
Children need to be given appropriate levels of responsibility. This can vary from asking a toddler to “help” with putting away the groceries or allowing an older child to walk home with friends, to letting your teenage son choose his own color scheme for his bedroom. Giving children a chance to feel in control will build esteem and meet their need for autonomy.
Children need to feel they are loved for who they are, not for what they do. Parents can show this in hundreds of ways: listening to them chatter, spending time together, asking for their opinion, forgiving wrongs, and giving advice. A child who feels loved develops a strong sense of self-worth and meets their need for relatedness.
Motivation to achieve seems to come from self-esteem, rather than self-esteem coming from achievement. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, two of the leading figures in self-determination theory, looked at whether reaching goals builds up a sense of self-worth. If this were the case, then the most successful individuals should also be the happiest. In fact, Deci and Ryan found that self-esteem based on achievements tends to be more fragile. People who base their sense of self-worth on what they have achieved need more reassurance and compare themselves more with others. Children who learn that their worth comes from what they have done, rather than who they are, will be more likely to develop into insecure adults.
Sometimes children need to be told what to do. This is extrinsic motivation, but it can become internalized. Every parent has responded at some time to a child’s question “Why do I have to do this?” with “Because I said so!” But a child who cleans his room because he is told to do so may find that he enjoys having a tidy space, and can develop a sense of accomplishment in finishing the task. Over time, he may see himself as a neat person, meeting his need for autonomy (being himself) by cleaning up after himself. This is still an extrinsic motivation; few children will clean their room for the love of the activity, but the more it is internalized, the more the child can meet those basic needs and develop genuine self-worth.
Every healthy parent wants their child to be happy and to try their best. Self-determination theory shows that children who meet their needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness will feel good about themselves, and will thus gain motivation to develop, grow, and succeed.