Are You Raising a Couch Potato?

How kids develop initiative and self-responsibility

Posted Feb 09, 2015

Couch potato

Do you ever wonder why some kids become unmotivated—why they would rather doze off in front of the TV instead of working toward a personal goal? Of course, the answer is complicated. But research on initiative development helps us understand pieces of the mystery.

My daughter was not a natural self-starter. In fact, like many children, she liked to veg out on the sofa, watch television, and play video games for hours. Expectations at school, tests, and social cliques created a high sense of anxiety that seemed to zap her motivation. When she could, being a couch potato provided an escape from the many pressures of growing up. But there was one place that made my daughter feel at ease and powerful—the ice rink. Over the years, it got her off the couch and motivated her to focus on the goals she wanted to accomplish.

From the time my daughter picked up skates at the age of 7, figure skating became a passion and the ice rink a place of learning. Years later, when she applied to law school, she wrote the following in her application essay: “I did not realize then, as I do now, that skating would shape my values and attitudes toward learning, work, and play.  Every new jump or spin involved practice, discipline, risk, patience, and the knowledge I could pick myself up when I fell. I experienced the determination, self-responsibility, and high standards of accountability that a skater needs to succeed both on and off the ice. I learned that if you do not hold yourself to a high standard, no one else will. The rigor and autonomy of figure skating gave me an extra ‘edge’ in life.” 

The Power of Initiative

What my daughter gained through her extra-curricular time on the ice rink was initiative. Initiative is the ability to be motivated from within to direct attention, effort, and action toward a challenging goal over time. It’s an ability that develops in preadolescence and plays a significant role as teenagers struggle to achieve their own identities and gain independence. 

Initiative not only propels children to accomplish goals but also helps them change direction and persevere through difficult times. It enables them to see possibilities and provides an internal road map that helps children navigate from where they are to where they want to be. It is a proactive, rather than reactive, force in life—an energy that compels children to say “I believe I can.” 

Children who do not acquire initiative are at risk of becoming dreaded couch potatoes! Low motivation is often linked to behavioral disorders, low achievement, alcohol use, and general unhappiness. Kids who lack initiative can also become intolerant of others and negatively impact their families.

External versus Internal Rewards

Many of the activities in which children participate naturally come with external rewards. If Johnny does well in the classroom, he gets good grades on his report card. If Susie’s soccer team wins the tournament, she takes home a trophy. Nowadays, she will probably get a trophy even if her team finishes last. If Bobby’s science project is a hit at the science fair, he’ll get a prize. And at Cindy’s house, when she completes her homework, she gets rewarded with an hour of television.

Although these types of activities and rewards can be worthwhile, they do not build initiative. We know that when external rewards are removed, many children become unmotivated to achieve. They also find it easier to blame others for their lack of success. Why? Because their activities lack internal reward.

Rewards that are experienced internally include feelings like autonomy, creativity, dignity, and an innate desire to determine our own futures. Two positive viewpoints that result from internal rewards are that we tend to take individual responsibility for constructing the life we want, and that we use creativity to transform life’s adversities. When internal rewards are cultivated in young people, they become the roots that enable growth and development throughout a lifetime.

After-School Activities Nurture Seeds of Initiative

Recent research shows that competencies, such as initiative, are developed and fostered through specific types of childhood experiences—with most of these experiences happening outside of school!

The discipline and practice of a demanding sport or after-school activity, according to research, is one type of life experience that nurtures the seeds of initiative in young people. My daughter’s reflections on what she learned from ice-skating are just one example of an after-school activity that taught initiative and self-responsibility through the power of internal rewards.  

Researchers agree that childhood and adolescence is a vital time for initiative formation. When parents, educators, and other adults recognize the elements of activities that foster initiative development, children move off the sofas and away from computer screens. They discover energy inside themselves that can be harnessed to accomplish their goals.

3 Elements of an Initiative-Building Activity

What makes an activity have an internal reward with lasting impact? Researchers have identified three important components:

  1. Kids must choose the activity for themselves. Choosing their own activities honors a child’s desire to determine their futures. It gives them autonomy and internal satisfaction. Examples include music programs, service-learning, sports, and a myriad of other after-school activities.
  2. The activity must take place in an environment that contains rules, challenges, and complexities inherent in the real world. For example, ice-skating involves certain routines and ways of moving, performing in front of judges that are not your parents, and learning to face physical, emotional, and interpersonal challenges with skating partners and teammates.
  3. The activity must be sustained over a period of time. Rather than doing lots of activities, it is better to focus on a few for longer periods of time. For example, when children choose an activity, encourage them to agree to participate for at least a year. After that, if they want to drop out, they’ve had the experience of persevering through some challenges before they decide to try something else. Perseverance reinforces initiative and gives kids resilience to bounce back when they face future obstacles.  


Adlai-Gail, W. S. (1994). Exploring the autotelic personality. Dissertation, University of Chicago.

Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow:  The psychology of engagement with everyday life (1st ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Hekmer, J. M. (1996). Exploring optimal personality development:  A longitudinal study of adolescents. Dissertation, University of Chicago.

Larson, R. W. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist, 55(1), 170-183.


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and researcher working at the intersection of youth development and education. Follow Marilyn's work at Roots of ActionTwitter, or Facebook.    

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Photo Credit:  Kasia Bialasiewicz