SingaporeMotherhood | Parenting

August 2021

“How Do You Motivate Your Child? It’s PSLE Next Year and Mine Doesn’t Seem to Care!”

Parents worry. Trying to motivate your child to study and excel in exams has long become part and parcel of daily life. Understandably so. A country with no natural resources means we invest heavily in human capital. A literacy rate of 97.5 per cent, the highest achieving primary and secondary pupils in Maths and Science, and an education system that’s ranked one of the best in the world by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Remarkable achievements for a tiny island city-state.

But Kids Are Not Motivated

Our zeal for academic excellence has spawned a society supporting paper qualifications. An emphasis on tuition means for most parents, the weekends involve ferrying their child to some enrichment class or other.

Is it any wonder that trying to motivate your child is getting more difficult?

(See also: “I’m a Lousy SAHM and I Feel Like a Failure” – Is This Your Inner Mum Voice?)

Imagine working for six hours, coming home to additional work-related training, and then more assessments after completing the work you brought home. Training extends to weekends because the more classes you go for, the better equipped you are. How motivated would you be as an employee of this system?

upset child and angry mother

But what else can we do, right? Well, let’s first look at the two kinds of motivation: 

External Motivation

The carrot or stick strategy — incentive vs. punishment — is something we’re all too familiar with. Relying on these external sources of motivation to draw out a behaviour is widely used because it’s generally effective. Sometimes, we offer a carrot: “You get your own phone if you get these grades.” Other times, we use the stick, shaming or caning them for bringing home less than desirable results.

(See also: What’s The Right Age to Get My Child His First Smartphone?)

Either way, we are training our kids to be dependent on external conditions. Often, that external influence stems from us, the parent, which means you run the risk of initiating a vicious cycle. When you come home exhausted after a tough day at work and still have to motivate your child, conflicts inevitably arise. “Why can’t you be self-motivated?” “Why do you only study when I’m around?”

Even in using the carrot, we risk raising praise junkies, kids who study or behave only to receive our approval. Can you keep up as the value of carrots increase? Because the effort goes hand in hand with the reward.

thumbs up or thumbs down

Intrinsic Motivation

On the other hand, what happens when the reward is the activity itself? The inherent enjoyment of doing something is the best motivation. When someone truly engages in studying or practising to get good at something, time flies by and there is joy. There may be struggles still, but there is no resentment.

Think back to when you spent hours on something that you needed no external motivation for, except the joy of mastering whatever it was. When was the last time you engaged in that activity? For many parents, our hobbies die when our children are born. Sadly. Have we stopped modelling intrinsic excitement, desire, and motivation for them?

(See also: 4 Inspirational Mums (and Their Kids) Who Champion Brilliant Causes)

Motivate Your Child to Self-Motivate

Studies have shown that both external and intrinsic motivation result in the same outward behaviour. Yet, the difference shows up in the quality of engagement, retention of what is learnt, and sustainability of the activity. The more external factors involved, the less it generates internal satisfaction.

To raise kids who are self-motivated, we need to change our strategies to encourage a stronger internal locus of control. When we stop controlling the circumstances and allow space for our child to make their own choices, they get the opportunity to own their outcomes.

motivate your child to make choices

Traditional nagging, scolding, punishing, rewards, behaviour charts, and even praise could be counter-productive if we want to inspire self-direction. Self-motivation starts from within. Yet, we have been conditioned to live from the outside in. To fit in. Read on if you’re ready to stop following the crowd and start guiding your child to lead.

Here are three steps to increasing self-motivation:

1. Reduce External Motivators

Make a list of things they currently do because of the external persuasions in place and pick one to drop. Just one at a time, unless you’re ready for the various consequences at one go.

You can either stop a punishment or get rid of the reward. Either way, you need to anchor it on a conversation. Explain that you want to create a space where they get to enjoy what they want to do. Share that you will no longer scold them because you want them to enjoy learning or that they have been ‘promoted’ to explore what they truly enjoy. Communicating how things are going to be different is the first of many steps in removing reliance on external influences. 

(See also: Why the Alternative to Tiger Mums is not “Laissez-faire Parenting” but “Attentive Parenting”)

Note that whatever you choose, it has to be something you can accept the discontinuance of. For example, if you’re no longer going to nag them to study for spelling tests, be ready for their grades to drop. In exchange for this, trust that the space you’re creating will serve them in the longer term.

2. Increase Intrinsic Motivations

motivate your child to love to learn

When we remove the pressure to learn for the sake of grades, we create a learning environment. This mindset shift away from the pressure to perform and towards the process of learning frees up space to slow down. When we stop pushing for results, your child can focus on mastering a new skill.

Yes, rote memorisation may be faster than taking time to understand and apply what they’re learning to everyday life. But when I help kids connect what they’re learning to a direct application, their eyes light up because they see the value in that education. Give piquing their curiosity priority over getting the right answers. Focus on how well, not how much, they understand.

Allowing for autonomy also means we give constructive feedback, not criticism, when they ask for our opinions. As we allow them space to lead their lives, we give them permission to listen to their internal compass.

(See also: When Children Say “I Dunno” / “I Don’t Know”)

3. Get in Touch with Their ‘Whys’

The next time your child is involved in their chosen activity for an extended period of time, ask them why. “What do you like about this game?” “How do you feel when you’re watching this TikTok?” “Why do you want to study this?” When you drill down deep enough, you will have helped them uncovered their ‘why’ — their motivation.

It could hint at a competitive child who enjoys winning. Or a relational child who desires connection. Perhaps an inquisitive child who is curious beyond the curriculum taught in schools. When you have discovered their ‘why’, fan the flames to support their passions, their talents, their interests. Because when we breathe life into the unique gifts of each child, we speak to their greatness. This is when you’ll find that trying to motivate your child is the easiest thing in the world!

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

(often attributed to) Albert Einstein

If your son — or daughter — doesn’t seem to care about impending exams, it’s likely because they’ve only always been doing it for you. There is a disconnect between the action of studying and the inner why they’re studying. In other words, the head is reluctantly doing an action that the heart hasn’t found a desire for. Help them bridge that gap, and you may just be pleasantly surprised at the results.

As a cliché goes, the longest distance in the world is from the head to the heart. When your child has found their ‘why’, you need only be there to cheer them on and celebrate the milestones with them.

Author of “The Naked Parent”, founder of Mum Space, and mother to five amazing children, Junia is a respected thought-leader in the parenting space. Recognised for empowering parents and kids with her 21st-century parenting model for over a decade, she now brings her ‘Modern Asian Mother’ expertise and experience to this exclusive SingaporeMotherhood column.

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Asian little boy holding book on head

“How Do You Motivate Your Child? It’s PSLE Next Year and Mine Doesn’t Seem to Care!”