I was reading an article the other day that talked about studies in favor of toddlers sincerely enjoying and wanting opportunities to help those around them. After finishing the article, I wondered, "where does all that 'helping spirit' go when they get older?" And why is it that some older children are more willing to help than others-- why do some children have more intrinsic motivation?
The Deets on Motivation
Motivation is generally categorized into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic means that someone is motivated to do something according to an inner desire and decision. Extrinsic, on the other hand, is when someone receives motivation through external factors (e.g., rewards, exchange of services, recognition, etc.). Some might be asking why the differentiation matters if both types of motivations get "the job done". The difference is seen when we look at our day-to-day tasks, especially as an adult; most of our tasks and responsibilities are not rewarded! Most "rewarding" tasks are not actually rewarded, take parenthood and any service opportunity as examples. Although it is tempting to say that some children are just "better" because of their visible intrinsic desire to help and do other beneficial things, this is not the case!
The key lies within the article I previously mentioned. The study showed that all of the toddlers that were observed under certain conditions were helpful when given the chance! In fact, many were enthusiastic to do so. Accepting this premise, that all children start out roughly the same in their desire and motivation to assist in tasks, what's a parent to do when their child has "jumped off the beneficial bandwagon", so to speak?
Bolstering the Beneficial Bandwagon
Fortunately, researchers have already done some work in studying this interesting, social phenomenon. In this research article reviewing past studies of intrinsic motivation in early childhood, ten factors were found to be most influential in developing this type of motivation:
1. Provide a Responsive Environment.
In normal language, this means the toys and caregivers around the child are not only interesting but interested in the child's learning. Both the toys and caregivers play a role in continual reaching for exploration.
2. Give Consistent and Responsive Caregiving.
Being a consistent and responsive as a caregiver means being interested in what your child is exploring or wanting to show you.
3. Support Children's Autonomy.
Allow your child to explore what and where they will, within safe boundaries.
4. Establish Close Relationships.
As shown in the Circle of Security, children feel safe and comfortable to explore their surroundings around someone they trust and feel secure with.
5. Establish Joint Attention.
Finding opportunities to share a moment or partake in a task together. This relatedness will strengthen their willingness and security in wanting to do things on their own.
6. Provide a Good Motivational Role Model.
The article states that there are three characteristics that are essential to being a good motivational role model: persistence, preference for challenge, and enthusiasm.
7. Provide Challenge.
As a child completes more tasks on their own or with little help, they gain confidence- or self-efficacy - in their ability to accomplish and to be competent.
8. Scaffold Children's Problem Solving.
To keep a child continually interested in improving or feeling worthwhile, it is important to keep providing opportunities that are just above the child's current abilities so they can be challenged in finding a solution to the task.
9. Foster Self-Evaluation.
Self-evaluation is different that being critical with oneself. Self-evaluation suggests improvement instead of devaluation. Parents might ask a questions to promote self-evaluation, such as "are you content with your final piece?" allowing them the choice and liberty to do either one. And if the child is already displaying this ability, comment on how you appreciate their evaluation of their accomplishments.
10. Use Rewards Sparingly and Cautiously.
Rewards have shown to decrease intrinsic motivation. That is not to say that rewards do not have an appropriate function in task completion or responsibility. As previously mentioned, use them sparingly and cautiously according to your child.
The Right Tools, Experiences, and Support
Though this is not an exact equation for intrinsic motivation for every child, these factors have shown to be great indicators of yielding a child that is not only willing to explore their surroundings while feeling secure in his familial relationships, but also a child who experiences self-efficacy and confidence in accomplishing hard things on their own. With these tools, experiences, and support, children are able to do what they enjoy best-- to help and to do good. So next time you're busy checking off a task, pause. Is your young child wanting to join and help? Let them!