The Development of Self-Motivation: Why Pleasing Parents Too Much Can be Bad for Your Health


Adinkra Symbol for change

Human beings change. Young human beings need our support as they change. How can parents and other adults help children to grow and change in healthy directions?

The theme of change is in the air. The country needs so much change—our financial markets need an overhaul, our relationships around the world need some care and fence-mending, health care and education are still in need of serious revamping, and on and on. On the family level, parents of teenagers are thinking, “Mr. Obama, you have two pre-adolescent daughters. If you can tackle all these problems, can you change our teenagers? Can you get her to keep her room clean or him do his homework without so much prodding?”

Injecting Motivation: Does it Work?

It’s an age-old question about change that can rule the lives of parents as much as any national problem: if behavior is driven by motivation, how can we motivate our children to do what we know is best for them? Part of the answer is “We can’t.” Why? Because human motivation is driven partly by internal (intrinsic) and partly by external (extrinsic) factors. Parents are an extrinsic factor.

Here’s a small example to illuminate the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. When our daughter was 6, we signed her up for soccer. It seemed to be a good way to develop physical and mental agility as well as to make friends in the neighborhood. Somewhere between the ages of 6 and 12, soccer took on new meaning for us, her parents. We thought: if she continues with it, and gets better at it, it will give her a sense of fun and accomplishment–not to mention, a team sport that she can play in high school. We invested time and effort into making it fun. We didn’t want to notice that she didn’t seem to relish soccer practice.


Em at the Line

Then one day we drove by an indoor archery range and I watched as her head and body spun around like the girl in The Exorcist to read every word on the sign. “Are you interested in archery?” I said tentatively. “Oh yes!” she said without hesitation. The rest of the story is that she took up archery, competed at a national level, and continues to shoot archery in college, nine years later. Needless to say, she quit soccer immediately after taking up archery. She was playing soccer because we wanted her to. She shoots archery because she wants to.

What’s So Great About Intrinsic Motivation?

Self-motivation researchers Ryan and Deci say that intrinsic motivation is the internal driver for the deepest type of learning, curiosity, and exploration. It is our natural drive to be happy, interested and fulfilled and is therefore linked with a number of positive outcomes in children—including creativity, better task performance, and higher psychological well-being.

Think about this for ourselves. Don’t we do better when the task at hand is intrinsically motivating to us? My friend dislikes math, but when he wants to find money in the family budget for a fun family vacation, he dives right into running those numbers with gusto.

In the case of our daughter, we thought we knew what was best for her. And we did. There’s nothing wrong with wanting all the benefits of a team sport for your child. We just took the wrong route. As extrinsic motivators we were right about the goals and wrong about how to get there. In the end, noticing her interest in archery accomplished all that we had wanted soccer to accomplish. What’s more, she enjoyed it and needed less prodding to practice.

So intrinsic motivation is important to self-motivation, but too much of it makes us self-indulgent and not able to fit into society. That’s where extrinsic motivation comes into the picture.


Start with a cookie…

Also as we mature, our behavior is influenced first by intrinsic motivation, then extrinsic motivation. If we are motivated only by pleasing others, chasing money, or other external rewards, we are guided primarily by extrinsic factors. We are in danger of losing a sense of identity. What inspires us? What do we value? What’s our own path to success?

So we need extrinsic motivation to survive in the larger world and to temper our more self-centered excesses. But too much is not good for our health.

Integrating Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

We see that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are critical to wellbeing and successful maturation. Awareness of external influences is important to fitting into society. Awareness of what motivates us internally helps us to choose the activity or path where we are more likely to succeed. This integration of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is the challenge of parenting and living.

So what are parents to do when they want their children to make changes? How can we help them integrate the two types of motivation?

  • Remember that it’s a balance of what we see as the goal and finding the path the fits the child.
  • Listen, listen, listen. What are they telling you about what motivates them by their excitement? What de-motivates them by their lack of enthusiasm?
  • Observe, observe, observe. What does your child enjoy? What are their strengths?
  • Help your child to notice these for herself.
  • Encourage experimentation and learning from mistakes by viewing the missteps as information, rather than judging them.

Parents are the most influential adults in our children’s lives. We teach them as we are just living our lives—balancing our own social obligations and internal motivators. Make space for your passions and your children will learn to do the same.

This article is Part Two of Three-Part Series on Autonomy-Supportive Parenting by this author, to be continued next month. It follows Part One, Don’t Push the River.

Today from the author: This is a year for change. I believe that changing the world starts with intentional, informed and positive parenting. And I believe that all parents need support to do the hardest job in the world. After all, all we have to do is follow the advice of the immortal Yogi Berra: “When you see a fork in the road, take it.”