Motivated kids: Something you make or something they’re born with?

One of our regulars wanted to discuss whether you can motivate kids to excel or whether they are born that way. Here is her question:

“How do you raise a child to excel when he/she seems to lack initiative or motivation? Are external rewards or incentives ever enough? Do some people suddenly get initiative or are we just born that way?”

I think some people are definitely born self-driven. I always turned my work in, never wanted to get bad grades, and rarely if ever got in trouble at school. I don’t remember my parents really doing anything to foster that. I definitely didn’t want to disappoint them but I’m not sure that was something that was instilled or was innate. My brother was not a great student until he decided he wanted to be. He found his calling to teach and then all of a sudden it was straight As. I don’t think any type of reward system would have created that result (and I believe they tried) until he was ready to do it for himself.

My kids know we want them to do their best each and every time. The only time they need to worry is if they didn’t do their very best. They both generally get straight As. If they bring home a B (or a bad handwriting grade for Walsh) then I want to know did you try your hardest. If so, the B is fine. If not, they had better work harder.

Do you think kids are born motivated or can you motivate them with rewards or punishments into excelling?

79 comments Add your comment

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Augusta

March 17th, 2011
6:27 am

they’re: “…something they’re born with?”

mom of 3

March 17th, 2011
7:01 am

I think motivation is something you either have or don’t have. I have a home office and my reps work from their home too. You would not believe the number of them that turn in time for work not done. If you don’t have the drive no one can make you achieve it. It comes from within a person.

Dennis

March 17th, 2011
7:39 am

What it comes down to – is helping kids find that inner motivation.

My 7 year old first grade son – is clearly motivated because he likes the process of discovery. It has its own intrinsic reward of finding something new and understanding why something happens.

In other pursuits like sports, we’ve helped him to build that inner motivation – learning to do things and accomplishing things that not everyone can do. It’s also helped for our 4 year old son.

I also think it helps for parents to live by example – if parents are apathetic about engaging with their kids, and apathetic about their own pursuits – what does that show a child?

Miss Priss!

March 17th, 2011
7:48 am

Theresa, sweetheart! Stronger coffee needed! In your headline, it should be “they’re” not “their.” Much luv!

Anyhow, some kids are hard-wired at birth to do well. Some are … sort of … and need solid and sincere support from everybody. No problem. Some go through cycles.

In other words, we’re all a little different on this one. Miss Priss! was a good student and a class leader, but loved a whole lot of good-natured mischief, too!

teacher

March 17th, 2011
7:54 am

Parents have a lot of control as far as conditioning behaviors. Kids may be “born unmotivated” but they certainly do not have to be rewarded or celebrated for their mediocrity and “just getting by.” By the time they are teenagers, it is very hard to motivate them if average is accepted or if they know someone will cover for them.

catlady

March 17th, 2011
8:02 am

I think there is a little of both, but I do think parents can do things to shape a less motivated student. I don’t think accepting excuses works, but you do have to factor in that some kids are good at one thing and not another.

The students I work with at school (those who are behind 1-3 years) seem, without exception, to have parents who subscribe to the “Aw, just do your best (what can you expect from a boy?)” or the “Huh?” schools of parenting. Cause or effect?

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
8:02 am

mom of 3…I am with you on working for yourself. Many folks could not do it. There a lots of things I do not like to do but force myself, as they have to be done. Some folks just do not do them.
Of course, there are just a few things that are ALWAYS on the back burner for me, like cleaning out the pantry, refrigerator, organizing socks…etc. This is tackled intensely, just a few times per year.

I am motivated and was typically a good student. I am lucky that my two are USUALLY diligent…not always.

I am all about modeling behavior for your children but sometimes, sadly, even this does not work.

On the flip side, my father in law is an alcoholic, chain smoker, ran around .
None of his children pursue any of these things. Who knows?

I am fascinated that typically first born are more driven but sometimes the baby is the leader too.
Birth order is interesting, to me.

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
8:05 am

@ teacher and catlady….yes expectations and boundaries can help a lot…I agree! Educators typically see the gamut of parenting and family relationships…it is very telling.

Tad Jackson

March 17th, 2011
8:07 am

Ask this question of a child and young person, or anybody, really! Are you delivering an excuse or a reason?

http://www.adixiediary.com

RJ

March 17th, 2011
8:17 am

I feel it’s a bit of both. You have some kids that no matter what, they are going to get the job done and succeed. You have others that need prodding. Parents can have a huge influence on a child’s motivation. My son, for example, is extremely smart and EXTREMELY lazy. I’ve always said that if I allowed him to have straight C’s, that’s what he’d make. If I said you can make one F per year, he’d do that too. It’s hard motivating him. My daughter has always worked hard. She’s the first born, if that matters. I am also. Although I have to get on her sometimes, it’s not nearly as much as her brother.

My husband has always felt that he was born lazy. Maybe he was, but as long as we’re footing the bills, he will not BE lazy in our home.

Photius

March 17th, 2011
8:18 am

It’s a bit of both. Speaking the truth, some children are just born losers regardless of the parent. Sometimes the child will succeed no matter what if the parents are losers.

I am firm believer in starting at an early age of discipline and challenging your child – hard. Sports, especially individual sports, are a great way to push your children to excel. Musical education is another avenue too. Demanding good grades, staying on top of your child’s performance, pushing them, pushing them, pushing them until the expected result is achieved is a must. Many parents today in my opinion are simply too soft, too self absorbed in their child to realize they have a job to do – raise the next generation and that means not being their friend but being their parent and their boss. In our house there are consequences for failure, always has been. Start pushing your children at an early age and lead by example yourself as a parent. Kids must know what is expected by the parents from a very early age. Discipline and challenge must be instilled.

Tad Jackson

March 17th, 2011
8:21 am

Amen, Photius! Lead by example! After time, your good deeds and thoughts and things you say and do really will sink in. Never give up!!

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
8:36 am

Tad…I took a peek and plan to get back, when I have time, interesting!

@ Photius and Tad, I am a firm believer in setting expectations. But sometimes, there are children who simply look at trouble and it sticks to them. Thankfully, these are not my two but I do hear it from parents/teachers out there.

A neighbor’s oldest is like this. He is just older than my son. The next two are great students and to my knowledge, have not been any trouble. The older one has calmed down a lot but he has a lot of issues that will now stick with him for life. A nice family too!

Tad Jackson

March 17th, 2011
8:39 am

Thank you, motherjanegoose! I promise you’ll cry and laugh. I know I do … at the same time!

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
8:44 am

@ Tad…anytime your work with kids…they evoke those emotions. A fascinating audience!

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
8:48 am

ooops..you work with kids…sorry!

pws

March 17th, 2011
8:51 am

My second is the driven child. Always has been the “little adult” in a kids body, we had to literally teach her how to be a kid! She just turned 22, what is hard for her to accept is when she tries and fails. It has gotten a little easier as she gains more life experience, but I think she was born with this drive she has. Her older sister is the calm one of the two, she does well, but she can handle life’s disappointments better than the younger.

Betty

March 17th, 2011
8:56 am

I definitely feel that some people have an inner drive that they are born with, and I hope that outside influences can nudge the rest of us to find our own motivation. Whenever I read about someone who came from a tough childhood, had no support, poor roll models, inadequate education etc, and then managed to accomplish amazing things, I think to myself that they have some kind of inner drive, discipline and focus that I admire. I don’t know how I would have fared given a similar upbringing.

I’ve certainly done alright myself, but then I’m honest about the fact that I’ve been fortunate enough to have been brought up with certain advantages that others have not. I think my oldest, at nine years old, would not be doing as well in school if we weren’t staying on her constantly about homework and pushing her constantly to challenge herself more. I certainly hope to see her take more initiative on her own, and soon, but so far it doesn’t seem to happen without our pushing it.

I do think that once you find your own passion, you tend to be more motivated too which is why so many people stuck in jobs that don’t suit get stuck in a rut.

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
8:56 am

Whose daughter was visiting med school in Memphis and did that work out…sorry but I have forgotten…that is a motivated, child methinks!

I posted this yesterday and no one replied, it relates to the topic on hand…Tad and Photius…your thoughts, since you are hanging around…

I got my oil changed yesterday and the station manager and I chatted about our kids. His oldest is the same age as my son ( 23). He told me that said son worked 18 hours a week at a chicken place, lived at home and basically slept and hung out all day. I did not offer any advice…are you guys amazed?

JATL

March 17th, 2011
8:59 am

It’s both nature and nurture, in my opinion. I’m sure (just like with many other personality traits) that some kids are born with a bit more “drive” than others. However, I also think that parent modeling and the way a child is raised has a TON to do with it. In fact, I’m sure kids with low motivation can be brought to a more highly motivated level if they have parenting that encourages it. Raising your kids to be early and constant problem-solvers who have a sense of personal responsibility will go a long way in instilling motivational drive. If they don’t expect someone else to come in and solve all of their problems and provide every answer, then they’ll start doing it on their own. Hand your kid’s problems back to him and if you both have a problem with the same issue, sit down and discuss a solution -with his input. It’s really one of the most important things you can pass on to your children.

Tad Jackson

March 17th, 2011
9:05 am

No. Not amazed. I’ll bet there’s a parent-son relationship there that’s deeply, deeply psychological. I’ll bet the parents are okay with him living there with them because they fear for him and want to care for him … probably there’s been a trauma. Or many traumas.

Of course, there’s no law that says you have to move out … get married … own a dog or cat … have children.

Lordy … my two cents. I’m not a psychiatrist, but know a whole lot about human behavior because I choose to study it and observe it and read and ask questions of those who really know about these things!

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
9:11 am

@ Tad…we have a dear friend who is a school psychologist…I LOVE it when we all get together for dinner… his wife and my husband join us…lots to talk about!

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
9:13 am

I am heading out, for the morning, but I do want to clarify that he NEVER shares information that is confidential. We talk about families and parenting in general. Trends and issues.

Betty

March 17th, 2011
9:15 am

@MJG—Was the question “are you guys amazed?” referring to the situation with the son or the fact that you didn’t offer any advice? LOL

And I don’t mean that in a snarky way either! I’d be amazed if most people on this blog didn’t offer their 2 cents if they were the ones getting their oil changed!

Photius

March 17th, 2011
9:17 am

MJG, you were wise to hold your tongue about that 23 year old. I would have to concur, there has been some type of issue – perhaps a divorce and the parents feel guilty? Regardless or trauma or whatever happened to the 23 year old, it is poor parenting to allow an adult to work limited hours and hang out. I would imagine the parents are probably giving him money too. Regardless, it’s a bad situation and it’s not in my house.

TinaTeach

March 17th, 2011
9:17 am

I think all children are born with some sort of self-motivation. Now, whether the subject or object of that motivation lines up with what the parents and society wants is a completely different thing.

shaggy

March 17th, 2011
9:35 am

“Their” = This is what happens when born motivated people discreetly move to Arizona, while they’re running a Georgia blog.

karma

March 17th, 2011
10:19 am

Nice to know your brother got some “straight As”!

Techmom

March 17th, 2011
10:55 am

Thanks for posting my topic suggestion T. (Even if it is from AZ- who cares, parenting isn’t suddenly different in AZ than it is from GA!! Though I am curious if you did move and how in the world did you move and not mention it on this blog?)

I asked this question about motivation because I sometimes feel like I’m fighting this huge uphill battle with my son and I am only winning b/c he lives under my roof but as soon as he moves out (and he will, barring any tragic or significant circumstances that change in the next couple of years), there won’t be anyone to push and prod and I’m afraid of the outcome. Certainly it will be his battle at that point but I’m sure most parents don’t feel like parenting stops as soon as their kids graduate from high school or college, and ultimately I will still feel responsible to a certain degree if he doesn’t succeed (yes, yes, according to MY standards of success I know.)

We have tried to encourage him to find something to be passionate about. He’s played just about every sport imaginable,he’s gone to tons of camps, classes, courses, lessons, etc.for whatever interests him in hopes that we’ll find something that REALLY interests him and might stick. He’s just not really passionate about any one thing. We had a long sit-down conversation with him a few weeks ago, right after we met with the counselor at his school to map out his class selection for the next 2 years b/c he starting asking our son about college, major & career interests and our son had none. And certainly it’s not because he’s not involved in or experienced a lot of things.

So if you have a kid who doesn’t have self-motivation in general, how do you still get them to excel at the stuff they don’t seem to care about (i.e. school) while you try to figure out what his/her passion is?

P.S. I think what makes this so utterly difficult for me is that I am one of those people who seems to have been born motivated. It certainly didn’t come from my family or the way I was raised…

JJ

March 17th, 2011
11:29 am

I know money motivates my child!!! Offer a monetary reward and stuff gets done REAL QUICK!!!

abc

March 17th, 2011
11:34 am

While everyone is self-motivating to greater and lesser extents, one motivates others through leadership. That certainly applies to raising your own kids. Reward and punishment are hardly leadership tools. Your children will follow your leadership because they want to; if you have adequate qualities of leadership, and command their respect, you will be a motivating influence.

Techmom

March 17th, 2011
11:50 am

@JJ – my son is externally motivated, both positive and negative; I just don’t see any intrinsic motivation in him and that’s what scares me.

Miss Priss!

March 17th, 2011
11:53 am

Right on, JJ!

It’s $10 for goals and $3 for assists in soccer for the ol’ 11 year old! Bad parenting? Should be motivated on his own? He is. Miss Priss! likes doing it!

But, by God, it’s $1 to me for each item of theirs I pick up off the floor … clothes or food wrappers. The power of one hundred pennies … is awesome!

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

March 17th, 2011
11:54 am

Wrote at midnight — thanks for correcting. will change.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

March 17th, 2011
12:01 pm

Techmom — really, really hard not to mention. I needed everyone’s help and advice and couldn’t ask for multiple reasons. I don’t think being in AZ will affect conversation adversely at all and may even offer new insights because I am seeing how other communities are doing stuff. is interesting for comparison sake. (For example, they have school choice here. you can go to any school you want as long as there is an opening and you can get them there.so offers an interesting perspective on the mom in Ohio jailed for sending her kids to the better school.)

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

March 17th, 2011
12:02 pm

abc — leadership chances work really well with walsh. he likes being given jobs at schools. he like carrying back the class’s library books. He likes handing out bulletins at church. Put him to work and him responsibility and he responds very well to that.

ZachsMom

March 17th, 2011
12:10 pm

@techmom-thank you for this topic. I have that son also except that he is bipolar and has ADHA. I actually just got home from an IEP meeting at his high school. I also hope that he will find that on thing that really motivates him to want more. Sometimes though, I can see it in him that he has given all that he has to give on some days and it is just not enough for anyone including him.

Some “the best that he can do” is to get out of bed and go to school and try to be socially acceptable and not get in trouble. I love my son but I wish that his life was easier and not filled with the challenges that he faces. That he could know what it feels like to get straight A’s or understand the topic on the first try (or even the second) and not have his teacher all be a little wary of him because of his explosive temper and violent mood swings.

Br thankful if your child doesn’t have to deal with these issues on top of being a teenager.

AngryRedMarsWoman

March 17th, 2011
12:24 pm

I am and always have been “exceptionally motivated”….my sister is decidedly not. We grew up in the same household…same hardworking parents….no real pressure put on either of us. My son seems to be happy with “As and Bs” and is often frustrated by me and says “I am not you, mom, I am not going to be a straight-A student” – just yesterday I printed his grade reports and tried to show him where a late homework and bobbled quiz cost him an A in a class and he rolled his eyes at me. Ultra-motivated people are born that way, IMHO. There are times that I feel like I don’t want my son to be as motivated as I am – I mean, it isn’t always pleasant and I wonder if I would have been a happier child if I had been able to roll with things like my sister did – but if he gets at least half of my motivation it will be much more than most people.

catlady

March 17th, 2011
12:30 pm

MJG–Did you mention birth order? I think it is very interesting. In my doctoral program (professors and students–about a dozen), we asked who were first born, and all but one (me) were—and I am an “only” child, the ultimate first born! (And somewhat known for being a little hard-charging) :)

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

March 17th, 2011
12:34 pm

Catlady — I was second born so I’m not sure I buy into the birth order stuff –

Don’t want to change the topic but did want parents to see this article from henry unger on work forecast for teen jobs for the summer — it is bleak —
http://blogs.ajc.com/business-beat/2011/03/17/weak-summer-job-market-forecast-for-teens/

HB

March 17th, 2011
12:46 pm

I’m not surprised that the teen job market is bleak (just like the rest of the job market). I know a lot of people on here stress the importance of teens earning their own money, but in this economy if you are able to to help them out a little financially, it could be good to encourage them to take up summer volunteer positions that require a regular commitment. Earning money is great, but if opportunities are hard to find, committing 20-30 hours per week to a well-organized volunteer program that has set schedules and policies can provide a lot of the same experience that a paying job would and help them build skills that can lead to paid employment later.

JJ

March 17th, 2011
12:55 pm

HB – WOW, I never thought about volunteer work….thank you!!! That’s a wonderful idea!!!

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
12:59 pm

@ JJ…I offered my daughter money to clean the house this week and she says she is not interested. This is probably because she already has a job, will start another soon and is on spring break. I then told I really needed her to do it since I have done a lot with and for her this week and I am off to a meeting in Huntsville. She is home on spring break and working about 25 hours this week. We will see what happens.

Techmom…you are correct…there are some things we have to do without having a carrot dangled in front of us. Not all kids get this…sometimes not even mine. I typically clean my own house and no one pays me to do it :0. I also do laundry and cook…all things I am tired of but they need to be done!

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
1:08 pm

JJ…would you like me to keep you posted on jobs in our area? I am out and about all over the metro and see things. I know Panera is almost always hiring. The Einstein Bagel Place by you too. The Tilted Kilt is opening near the mall. I am told they are looking for attractive girls…could be something for your daughter? I am not trying to butt in at all but I notice who is hiring.

I do think it is better to volunteer than do nothing. A friend of my daughter’s who comes from a nice family is 19 and has never had ANY kind of a job. Parents both have good jobs. She is at the beach with her friends on spring break…Mom and Dad finance most every whim. My daughter likes her a lot but told me she cannot hang out with her because it is too expensive and she (my daughter) runs out of money.

catlady, let’s talk about it next time for lunch. I want to come up and see your garden this summer!
Am I invited?

@ Betty…the tongue holding…see, I am learning a FEW things here. ;)

JJ

March 17th, 2011
1:11 pm

MJG – YES PLEASE!!!!! Keep me posted when you see openings. She will be home early May…..and MUST work this summer. Her free summers are OVER!!!!! time to take on some personal responsibility!!!

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
1:12 pm

@ shaggy…you may want to re read this post from DB, a few days ago:
@Shaggy: I’ve got to say it — your comment directed at Theresa regarding a move to Arizona is ugly, tacky and completely uncalled for.

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
1:17 pm

I know I am testy on here sometimes. I frankly do not care where anyone lives…except the folks I have lunch with…Michelle bailed on me :) to VA. Let’s think good thoughts for TWG as she adjusts to living somewhere else. I know things will be different but we moved here from Texas 21 years ago and we managed. Everyone there thought we were CRAZY to move to GA. Some here think it would be crazy to move to Texas. I love Texas and would move back but love it here too! Each place offers interesting options!

AngryRedMarsWoman

March 17th, 2011
1:19 pm

“Mom and Dad finance most every whim”

To go off-topic for a moment, what you said made me think of a problem that I am having and I wonder if others do as well. My son is an “only”, so when we go places he likes to bring a friend with him. I don’t particularly mind paying for those things, but it is a rare occasion when these kids bring even some spending money with them and for the most part I have not seen any kind of reciprocity….is this normal? My mother would have died before letting me go somewhere without some money in my pocket – even if she knew the parents would say “put it away, we will pay.” And I never let my son go anywhere without money for snacks and expenses. I don’t understand how these folks can pull up in front of my house and drop off their kids for a hockey or baseball game or day of skiing or a concert and not put $20 in their pocket for incidentals — especially when I am paying $50-$100 for the kid to attend whatever the event is. And I must be the only parent who goes anywhere because I have never had another parent offer to take my son to a ballgame or anything else unless it is to drop the kids somewhere and I have to send money for it. Sorry, just venting.

motherjanegoose

March 17th, 2011
1:38 pm

@ Angry…I discussed this a while back. We have taken teen aged kids with us on vacation for a WEEK. The parents send $50-100, with no instructions. This is their spending money and they blow it early. I cover all expenses for the trip, except what they want to buy and dinner out. We usually get free breakfast at the hotel or stay in a condo.

So, I am left paying for dinner out and we do not eat at Mc Donald’s. Tell me, WHERE CAN YOU SEND YOUR CHILD FOR THE ENTIRE WEEK FOR $50-100? Day Care, Camp? While we have had several of my daughter’s friends with us on trips….she has gone with another family ONCE and I did send money with specifics. I feel your pain…maybe your son could come with us?

Miss Priss!

March 17th, 2011
1:45 pm

AngryRedMarsWoman! It’s a total freak-out, ain’t it, when you bump into tacky people who have no class or manners … or all three! And they’re fornicating and making more humans, these people! And driving around in cars!

The first thing you notice about someone’s personality, once they start yakking, is if they have some couth. Then I go to the hairdo. Anyway, what Miss Priss! is trying to say is that no one really knows your level of income or education, but they sure can tell real quick if you got class and consideration of others.

Class is stuffing a twenty in your child’s pocket, and making sure they spend it unless the other folks offer to be classy, too!