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The Art of Motivating a Toddler

Ever since that epiphany about jigsaw puzzles and Lego contributing to the development of hubby’s “genius” I’ve been trying to encourage Gavin to do more jigsaw puzzles.  Alas, it appeared I could do no more than get him to mix up the pieces, and pretend they’re food that he “cooks” and serves back up to me.  The only benefit of letting him play masak masak with his jigsaw puzzle pieces is that he inevitably had to put them back together again when the time came to pack up.  Unfortunately, it also meant that I was forced to help him or we’d get no cleaning up done.

Just when I had given up on ever getting Gavin to use the jigsaw puzzles pieces for their intended purpose, we found some Thomas and Friends jigsaw puzzles on sale at Isetan, KLCC.  We bought him a 24 piece giant floor puzzle, a 35 piece floor puzzle and a 100 piece floor puzzle.  Admittedly, I felt I was being a bit ambitious buying the 100 piece puzzle but I figured since it was on sale, I might as well get it and let him “grow” into it.

I’ve never known what Gavin was capable of completing on his own because he would usually twist my arm to get me to help him.  Since he wouldn’t even bother working on the puzzle if I didn’t participate, I always ended up “helping” him.  I wasn’t expecting much from the three new puzzles we bought but to my surprise, he took to the two smaller puzzles and completed them on his own without any prodding from me.  Thinking the 100 piece was too hard for him, I worked on that one while he did the two smaller puzzles.

A couple of days later, he wanted to play with the puzzles again and took them out.  I half expected him to start “cooking” with them but he didn’t.  After he finished the two smaller puzzles, he asked me to help him with the 100 piece puzzle.  Since he wouldn’t even attempt it on his own, I sat down and helped him with the border, the ferris wheel and the fireworks.  I would have done more but I had to clean Gareth up.  While I was busy, Gavin ended up finishing the rest of the puzzle on his own.  That was the first inkling I had that he could possibly finish the 100 piece puzzle on his own.

I told hubby and Ah Kong about his achievements while he was within ear shot and they both praised him.  Encouraged by the praise, he tackled the puzzles again the next day.  This time, I assisted him with only part of the border, then sneakily distracted myself by giving Gareth a bath.  I’ve realised that Gavin is a little like me when I’m working on a jigsaw puzzle – once he’s started, it’s difficult to drag him away from it.  You just have to get him started and he’ll get the rest done on his own.

Prior to this recent experience, I had been somewhat disheartened by Gavin’s refusal to attempt problems that are challenging.  I suspect that he might have been affected by the praise that he is “smart” – everywhere we go people are often praising him for being “smart” which irks me to no end because I know of the negative effects that such praise can have.  As Bronson and Merryman found, kids that are praised for being intelligent are often afraid to try problems they aren’t sure they can solve.  They are afraid to fail.  I don’t want my son to be afraid to fail but I have been struggling to get him out of that mindset.

The experience with the jigsaw puzzle has taught me a little about motivating my son.  I started the 100 piece jigsaw by asking him to help me.  Once he was hooked on the process of putting it together, I removed myself from the activity.  When he finished it, I made a big deal out of it telling Daddy what he achieved while he was within earshot. Then I gave him the opportunity to do the puzzle by himself with minimal assistance from myself.

There was a wonderful side benefit of getting Gavin these puzzles – the activity occupied him and kept him busily engrossed leaving me free to handle his brother.  Now if I can just find a 150 piece Thomas and Friends puzzle…

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

4 thoughts on “The Art of Motivating a Toddler

  1. Wonderful achievement by Gavin! 🙂 I feel the same when others praise my boy “clever” over the slightest thing (e.g. just by greeting them), because they have nothing else to say / don’t know about the negative power of praise / think the parent would love to hear that.

    Jigsaw puzzles are addictive to some: once you start, it’s hard to stop! I’ve loved huge jigsaw puzzles since 5 years old; and my mum must have felt I was a very low-attention-seeking child. When Gavin grows into 300 or 500-piece puzzles, you can have half the day to yourself. Enjoy the freedom! 🙂


  2. That’s wonderful! 😀 Jigsaws are wonderful toys. Jack used to love them but he finished them and we kind of forgot to get more. 🙂 Will look out for 150 piece Thomas puzzles for Gavin!


  3. Hi there, I think partly Gavin loves this puzzle is because it is a Thomas puzzle. Like my son, he loves Thomas. So in order to cultivate his interest in puzzles, you have to find puzzles in the things that he love.


  4. Mie Vee – That’s so true. Gavin also gets praised for being “smart” just because he’s there and they feel they gotta say something. What’s with that? Drives me nuts when I hear it.

    Yeah, I’m really addicted to jigsaw puzzles. Just the other day I was so tempted to buy 1000 piece Mickey Mouse puzzle (which I know is really for me and not Gavin :-p). It’s almost like Daddy wanting to buy remote control cars for Gavin when he was still a baby!

    I’m looking forward to the 300-500 puzzle pieces. Let’s hope I can cultivate this interest…

    Mephala – yeah, I’m looking forward to the time when I can do those 5000 puzzles with the boys. Let’s hope they both like jigsaws as much as Daddy and I do…

    Irene – Yes, but I don’t think it’s partly. I think it is purely because the jigsaws were Thomas. I got him a Mickey one and he hasn’t touched it at all (aside from wanting to pretend it’s ingredients for his pretend cooking)… That’s not because he doesn’t like Mickey. He’s just not interested enough in Mickey to want to do the puzzle.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there are going to be more complex Thomas jigsaw puzzles around. Maybe a puzzle with train pictures?


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