Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Motivation Paradox

How to encourage passion and joy in your children.

 Nataliia Zhekova/Shutterstock
Source: Nataliia Zhekova/Shutterstock

Challenge and mastery are motivators. As adults, we become engaged in a topic or activity of interest and are motivated by our inherent pleasure. When we enjoy something, external reinforcements to learn more or work harder are unnecessary.

Unfortunately, many children are not afforded opportunities to make choices in their own lives. Highly scripted days within structured school environments and adult-led extracurricular activities leave little room for autonomy.

Kids are left feeling like out-of-control automatons progressing through the motions of life.

Choice and Mental Health

Why is lacking a sense of agency problematic for our kids? In The Self-Driven Child, authors William Stixrud and Ned Johnson suggest that increases in mental health problems in childhood are strongly associated with children feeling a lack of control over their lives.

In fact, according to Stixrud and Johnson, lacking control is one of the most stressful things that people can experience. They propose that modern parents are raising an “anxious generation” due to unrelenting parental decision-making in all aspects of children's lives.

Choice and Motivation

Aside from mental health issues, research suggests that an absence of control and self-determination is a significant contributor to lack of motivation.

Stixrud and Johnson state,

“Research on motivation has suggested that a strong sense of autonomy is the key to developing the healthy self-motivation that allows children and teens to pursue their goals with a passion and to enjoy their achievement.”

Parents are often frustrated with their unmotivated child, whether in academics, athletics, or other domains of life. In response, we tend to push our kids. Rewards, threats, and punishments are techniques many of us have tried. While these disciplinary methods may lead to temporary obedience, long-term motivation is weakened.

Understanding Motivation

Motivation, a desire to act and move toward a goal, is a central issue in the field of psychology. It is also an area of interest to parents, teachers, coaches, employers, and many others. According to Ryan and Deci, intrinsic motivation is the unprompted propensity to “to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacity, to explore, and to learn." This is the goal, isn’t it? Not just for kids, but for all of us. The spontaneous seeking of knowledge is the ultimate objective, whether in an academic area, skill-development, or athletic pursuit.

On the other hand, when we do things to obtain a reward or to avoid punishment, we are motivated extrinsically. What is problematic, and often confusing, to parents is that we see short-term behavior change (i.e., the kid may listen or comply at that moment) when we utilize extrinsic motivators.

While these methods may temporarily improve behavior, psychological research suggests parents should tread carefully as tangible rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation. People who are given rewards for something they previously enjoyed become less engaged after receiving tangible reinforcers for the activities. This research is something every parent should understand. Promises of money for grades, scoring goals, practicing piano, etc., may undermine a child’s natural enjoyment of those activities.

Locus of Control and Mental Health

The concept of locus of control, as formulated by Julian Rotter’s Social Learning Theory (1966), is another theoretical domain within psychology that helps us understand why our kids may seem more unmotivated, anxious, and depressed as compared to generations past.

Locus of Control theory describes how people believe outcomes are determined by external forces or their own actions. People with an internal locus of control reason that life events are due to their own efforts and personal characteristics, while “externals” think life outcomes are outside of their control; due to chance or fate.

While there is a nuance to the research, in general, people with a higher measured internal locus of control have more positive outcomes within many life domains, including higher levels of income, reduced likelihood of being overweight, and reduced levels of stress.

Interestingly, over the past several decades, children’s measured locus of control scores have significantly shifted from being internally focused to externally focuses according to research by Jean Twenge and Liqing Zhang. This summary of their research illustrates an alarming trend:

"Two meta-analyses found that young Americans increasingly believe their lives are controlled by outside forces rather than their own efforts. Locus of control scores became substantially more external (about 0.80 standard deviations) in college student and child samples between 1960 and 2002. The average college student in 2002 had a more external locus of control than 80% of college students in the early 1960s."

Self-Determination Theory

So, how can you encourage passion and joy in our children?

Supported by more than four decades of research, Self-Determination Theory can guide us. This widely endorsed theoretical framework of behavior describes how humans have three innate needs that drive motivation:

1. Autonomy: People need to feel in control of their own behavior and goals.

2. Competence: People need to gain mastery over new skills.

3. Relatedness: People need to have a sense of attachment to others.

When one or more of these needs are not being met, people are less motivated, less engaged, and less mentally well.

As parents, we can ensure that our children have the opportunity to make meaningful choices in their lives. If they show a particular interest in a topic, let them dive deeply into it. Determine small ways in daily life that they can choose what to learn, play, or create.

We can also help our kids feel more competent when approaching challenging tasks or activities by giving encouragement and guidance – without criticism. As a parent, you can be a guide on the side by supporting your children's interests and encouraging them to become more knowledgable or skilled in their chosen domain.

Finally, we can simply be there for them. Feeling valued by parents, family, and others (relatedness) can go a long way toward improving motivation and mental health.

Closing Thoughts

Paradoxically, as well-meaning parents, we often do things that undermine our children's natural motivation. In many homes across the country, kids are overwhelmed by constant demands to perform, with little to no room for downtime or choice.

All kids, no matter their learning environment, aptitude, or attitude, can benefit from increased control over their own lives. Simple changes that let kids know they are the "captains of their own ship" can make a difference and improve motivation and overall happiness.

As parents, it can be difficult to reorient and realize we must relinquish some control. However, if you are willing to give your kids more choice and control within their lives, even in small doses, you may find they will exude passion and joy that will spark improved overall family functioning.


Rotter, J. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs, 80 (Whole No. 609).