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"You Can't Make Me!"

The impact of motivational style on children's positive functioning.

Flickr. Bart Heird
Source: Flickr. Bart Heird

If you’ve ever wrangled a child into a car seat or threatened to take away a trip to see Mickey while in a public restroom stall, then you know a thing or two about motivation. We want our children to do things on a timeline, according to our plan, in line with our thoughts, values, and beliefs. And in this great battle children throw their hands in the air, scream out loud or refuse to move. Then we try motivating them by promising more screen time or a sweet treat at home, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. We wonder if our children enjoy seeing us come undone. Have no fear. Your children are not out to get you. They are not defying you in an effort to see you lose your cool. They are in fact exercising one of the basic human needs for psychological fulfillment and it’s called autonomy.

When you get the oil changed in your car, there is a helpful tool that indicates the level of fluid that will keep the car at optimal performance level; a dipstick demonstrates how much or how little oil is needed to make a car go. Motivation is a resource that if used properly can also lead to optimal performance psychologically. Unlike oil in a car, motivation is not unitary. It cannot and should not be measured by units of how much one has. Motivating a child is not a question of how much or how little motivation a child has, so a parent can’t just add more elixir to spark inner motivational resources. But parents can adapt the quality of the motivating style they use with their children. Developing an autonomous motivating style instead of a controlling motivating style will do more to nurture a child’s inner resources and positive functioning. Autonomous motivation involves willingness, volition, and choice. Controlled motivation involves seducing or coercing into behaving.

It may be helpful to peel this back a layer and explain that motivation is the energy for action. It is what moves people to behave. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, researchers at the University of Rochester, have spent decades studying human motivation. Their theory of Self-Determination lists three major ingredients or needs for psychological fulfillment: competence, autonomy, and social relatedness.

  • Competence- sense of effectiveness and confidence in one's context
  • Autonomy- behave in accord with abiding values and interests
  • Relatedness- Feeling cared for, connected to, and sense of belonging with others

All human beings have these psychological needs and together with personal interests, values and strivings, inner motivational resources grow roots. Their potential for growth, however, is either supported or diminished by environmental conditions: a parent’s motivating style, external events, opportunities, and social demands. This relationship is dynamically interactive, and whether an environment supports or thwarts a child’s inner resources has different outcomes (Reeve, 2006). Outcomes associated with autonomous motivation are greater persistence, more flexibility and creativity, better heuristic performance and more interest/enjoyment. Conversely, controlling motivation produces compliance, rigid thinking, short term rote learning, alienation, and disaffection, and it is the shortest path to a desired outcome.

If you so desire to be an autonomy-supportive parent with a needs supportive environment, consider the following strategies:

  1. Nurture inner motivational resources- find a way to build on your children’s interests, preferences, competencies, and choice-making. Avoid external regulators like sticker charts, special treats, or extra screen time simply to get to compliance.
  2. Use non-controlling language- Focus on statements that are informational- “I see that you”, “I notice that you”, “I need you to.”
  3. Communicate value and provide a rationale—identify and explain the use, value, and importance that justifies the effort.
  4. Acknowledge and accept expressions of negative affect—sometimes your child will not like your rules, boundaries or requests. There will be conflicts between limits and demands and your child’s preferences. Acknowledge the negative emotions and avoid statements like “just get in the car!
  5. Reduce external regulators such as rewards, punishers, generic praise, competition.

With a different motivating style you may realize that the best avenue to nurturing a child’s overall psychological health is not a quick fix in the five minute oil change shop, but a long process of being attuned, relating to your child’s world, supporting their interest and ideas, providing reasonable limits and boundaries and giving them the space to grow into their own person.


Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (2017). Self-Determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development and wellness. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Reeves, J. (2006). Teachers as facilitators: What autonomy-supportive teachers do and why their students benefit. The Elementary School Journal. 106. 225-236.