How to get a child self-motivated? Don’t be too funny!
Many tuition centres will entice you with the word ‘fun’: ‘Join our fun centre!’; ‘Your child will have fun here!’; ‘Have fun and learn!’; ‘Learn Through Fun!’. The term ‘fun’ has become a mantra with unimpeachable certainty. Every parent wants his or her child to have fun learning. No one, surely, can argue against fun?
Perhaps one cannot argue against fun per se, but one can certainly argue against too much of it; one would certainly not want children’s educational experience to be unfunny.
Modern early-years educational thought seems to be that education should at all times be as much fun as a trip to a theme park. Children go to nursery and kindergarten with the expectation of being entertained. The ‘teacher’ becomes a comedian and the learning materials become ‘fun activities’, often utilising multi-media with a visual focus involving the primary colours.
There is a role for such fun and purposeful play in the early years. It supports helping children to socialise and develop motor skills. However, the consequence of all play and no work can be to literally make Johnny a dull boy [or Joanna a dull girl]. Fun has its limits.
There are two particular dangers. Firstly, if children are fed on a diet of material being presented in such a fun way, there is less opportunity for them learning to appreciate the material for what it is rather than how it is packaged. Secondly, as children become older they will continue to expect learning to be fun, fun and more fun. As learning material becomes more abstract and rigorous in the later primary years, the ability to deliver such material in fun-sized entertaining packages becomes more problematic.
If you were asked to identify the key attribute of the academically successful child, what would you come up with? Many people would say that intelligence is the most important attribute. Others would stress the importance of being able to concentrate. Still others might suggest the capacity for hard work.
Undoubtedly, all those attributes are important. However, the key attribute has to be the child’s inner motivation. The other attributes are underpinned by inner motivation.
What motivates a child to want to succeed academically? This is a difficult question to answer. However, there are some general parenting and teaching approaches one can adopt towards children to inculcate inner motivation.
If you wish to encourage a high level of self-motivation in a child, then you should teach, both formally and by example, the notion that there is satisfaction in doing something well for its own sake. There is no harm in dressing up some learning material with some entertainment, but there should be an explicit statement to the child that it is the material which is being learnt, not the entertainment.
It is most invaluable for your child to cotton on early in life that some things are ‘boring’. No apologies are needed; that’s the way it is. Your child should have a cheerful disposition and accept the ‘boring’ bits whilst waiting to move on to the exciting parts.
A useful analogy is learning to play a musical instrument: most children will accept that certain drills have to be repetitively performed before the more interesting material can be approached. Indeed, many actions that adults think must be boringly repetitive to children are often welcomed by children. Sometimes, children simply do wish to be repetitive.
Interestingly, with this approach more of the ‘boring’ things become less boring, and more of the exciting parts become more exciting.
Coupled with this is the issue of rewards. Should you reward a child with stickers, sweets, hand-held gaming devices, ATM etc? It is better to be rather hard-nosed about this and do not so reward. Instead, how about giving your child a big hug and saying ‘Well done!’. After several days of good work by your child, you could also consider treating him or her to a special visit to an ice-cream restaurant or the zoo. By saying to your child, ‘Today’s treat is for the past few days’ work’ you are helping to inculcate deferred gratification – a concept seemingly alien to most children today (see ‘The marshmallow test’ below).
It is of course a value judgement that parents have to make as to how far they wish to take all this. Most parents would agree that childhood is distinct from adulthood and children should be more indulged. Parents will have come to a balanced view that works for them. However, if you want your child to chase academic success, then you should examine whether your child’s learning activities are encouraging a predisposition towards extrinsic rather than intrinsic rewards.
Coupled with the child’s desire to succeed is the important psychological attribute of being able to defer gratification.
An interesting test of deferred gratification was done between 1968 and 1974 by psychologist Walter Mischel and colleagues at Stanford University. It became known as the marshmallow test. Mischel studied children between the ages of four and five. He left each child in a room with a marshmallow, telling the child that he would return in 20 minutes; if the child had not eaten the marshmallow by the time he returned, he would reward the child with an additional marshmallow. Some children quickly gobbled the marshmallow whilst others managed to hold out for the reward – 20 minutes must have seemed like an eternity for the children. Fourteen years later, Mischel followed up on the children and found that those who had not eaten the marshmallow had better academic and social skills.
Those who did not eat the marshmallow demonstrated a variety of strategies to help them resist, including one child who pretended to doze off. This suggests that the ability to defer gratification can, at least partially, be taught.