Lighting the Fire the Drives Motivation in Children

There is a scene in the movie Battleship that comes to mind whenever I think about motivation:

Admiral Shane: [Reprimands Alex Hopper] What is wrong with you? You’ve got skills, but I have never, EVER seen a man waste them like you. Keep the ship out of the surf and spray…

Alex Hopper: [interrupts Admiral Shane] … or you’ll plunge to destruction. Homer, Sir.

Admiral Shane: The fact that you know that infuriates me beyond words. What my daughter sees in you is a great mystery to me. You’re a very smart individual, with very weak character, leadership and decision-making skills.

Whenever I think about kids without motivation, I wonder if that’s how they’ll end up. Will they be like Alex Hopper, happy to squander their potential to the chagrin of all those around them? And if we have children who demonstrate “Alex Hopper” tendencies, is there anything we can do to help them keep their ship out of the surf and spray?

The statistics aren’t exactly encouraging:

In a nationwide survey of high school dropouts, 69 percent said that school had not motivated or inspired them to work hard. In fact, many of the students who remain in school are not motivated or inspired either, and the more time students spend in K–12 education the worse it gets. This lack of motivation to do well in school represents a serious loss of human potential, with implications for students’ well-being later in life and for our country’s future economic growth. What prevents students from working hard in school? Is it something about them or is it something about school? More important, is there a solution to this problem? – Academic Tenacity

I keep asking myself: how do we motivate the child that is content to cruise, offering just the minimum of effort to get by? How do we awaken the hunger in the child so that he aspires to be all he can be? Is this a lesson he has to learn on his own or is there a way to nudge him in the right direction?

Image Source: Pinterest

Antoine de Saint says to “teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea” but I confess that I don’t quite know how to do that. I’ve only ever been familiar with the heavy-handed approach of beating the drum. So I’ve been doing a little digging and this is what turned up.

Motivation – Intrinsic vs Extrinsic

There are two kinds of motivation:

  • Extrinsic motivation – when our actions are driven by external conditions, usually a reward such as money, fame, grades, and praise. Sometimes we call it “the carrot or the stick”.
  • Intrinsic motivation – when our behaviours are driven by internal rewards, for instance, the personal satisfaction that we derive from pursuing a certain course of action.

The Problem with Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is easy to implement and it can be effective – up to a certain point. But here’s why we should avoid becoming over-reliant upon it:

  • It is destructive in advancing creative and higher-order thinking.
  • It diminishes intrinsic motivation for that same activity over the long-term.
  • A study of 200,000 employees revealed that intrinsically motivated people were three times more engaged in their work than those reliant on external rewards.

Setting Goals

According to a study by Smithers, you can increase motivation with goal-setting. In fact:

  • Goals are frequently found to boost people’s motivation, and so their performance.
  • Men respond to goals better than women – does that mean boys respond better to goals than girls?

If you’re looking for a quick fix, especially if you’re trying to motivate your son, then perhaps this is one place to start. DH started setting goals for G1 and it seems to be working so far.

Yes, I hear you – doesn’t this sound like extrinsic motivation? Well, yes and no. It depends on the goal, how you set it, and who sets it. The goals that we have set for G1 are admittedly extrinsic in nature, but that doesn’t mean all goals are extrinsic. I could set a goal for myself to run a marathon where my reward is the satisfaction of ticking a bucket list and that would be an intrinsic motivator.

Exercising to Boost Motivation

How else can we boost motivation? In the book Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey says exercise. Yes, you read that right – exercise increases motivation. For most of us, when we think of exercise, we think of motivation as the thing we need to start exercising, not the other way around. While it may seem contrary to think of exercise leading to motivation, it does make sense. Getting started with exercise is difficult, but once you get into a routine, it’s hard to stop. That’s because exercise increases the level of dopamine in your brain which regulates our motivation to act.

Dopamine motivates us to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them. Procrastination, self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm are linked with low levels of dopamine. Studies on rats showed those with low levels of dopamine always opted for an easy option and less food; those with higher levels exerted the effort needed to receive twice the amount of food. – Huffpost

Other research links increased motivation to the heightened levels of cortisol that occur after an intense bout of exercise. Researchers found that cortisol levels remained elevated for about 20 to 30 minutes and that it was linked to a demonstrable increase in reward-seeking behavior. Simply put, intense exercise increases our cortisol levels which boosts attentiveness, our desire to perform, and motivation. It also affects cognitive processes like working memory, retrieval, and attention, which can also enhance reward-driven and approach-motivated behavior.

Using Dopamine to Boost Motivation

If exercise boosts motivation by raising dopamine levels in the brain, then perhaps these other methods might work as well since they also increase dopamine:

  • Listening to music – “the researchers showed that 15 minutes after participants listened to their favorite song, their brains flooded with dopamine”.
  • Meditating – “Results differ somewhat, possibly owing to the use of different forms of meditation, but in general show increased signals in brain regions related to affect regulation and attentional control, with increased release of dopamine”.
  • Massage therapy – “an average increase of 31% was noted for dopamine”.

Build Emotional Intelligence

According to Growing Leaders, drive (the ability to persist with things we don’t like for a greater cause) has been linked to emotional intelligence.

In a recent meta-analysis of high level leaders in business, one report found that “people who are more adjusted, sociable, ambitious, and curious are much more likely to become leaders.” This means your students who lack basic social skills will also soon become your students who fade further and further back out of the spotlight. If you want your students to increase their motivation in your classroom, you might start by helping them develop their social skills. – Growing Leaders

Therefore, it is likely that the kids who struggle with emotional intelligence may be the ones with low motivation. I’m not really sure how it all fits together since motivation is one of the 5 elements of emotional intelligence:

  1. Self-awareness – metacognition (understanding how we think)
  2. Self-regulation – managing disruptive impulses and thinking before acting
  3. Motivation – what pushes us to achieve our goals, feel more fulfilled and improve overall quality of life
  4. Empathy – understanding how someone else feels and to see things from their perspective
  5. Social Skills – the ability to interact and communicate with others

Does he mean that building up the other four elements of emotional intelligence can help pull up motivation? I’m still not entirely clear on that one but given that emotional intelligence is important for many other reasons, it never hurts to work on it.

Emotional Intelligence: Motivation

If we focus solely on motivation, we can break it down further into 4 parts:

  1. Personal drive to improve and achieve
  2. Commitment to goals
  3. Initiative or readiness to act on opportunities
  4. Optimism and resilience

Points 1 to 3 relate to personal interest so if we can somehow make the task relevant, we might be able to increase motivation. That brings us back to purpose and understanding the end goal. If something means enough to us, we’ll drive ourselves to work for it – there is internal motivation. The question then is how do we make it personal for our children?

The last point is related to personality which can be quite hard to change, but we can work on it by focusing on building resilience:

What Drives Internal Motivation?

According to the research, there are four aspects to internal motivation:

  1. Autonomy: having control and being able to decide what you want.
  2. Competence: feeling like you have the ability to do it.
  3. Relatedness: when the thing you must do helps you feel connected to others.
  4. Relevance: when there is meaning and purpose to the work you are doing.

What else drives internal motivation? It probably goes without saying that we’re more motivated when we’re working on something we’re interested in.

Motivation begins with interest — an emotion that guides our engagement in the world. Interest leads to exploration and to the development of projects. Projects then become ambitions and goals. – Huffington Post

So if we can figure out what our kids are interested in, help them discover its relevance and relatedness to their lives, give them some autonomy over their learning, and provide them with the support so that mastery is within their reach, we should have a pretty motivated child.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with
Get started
%d bloggers like this: