A child's best motivation comes from within

Let children make their own choices and learn from the consequences

I remember it was an uphill task getting my eldest child, now 11, to revise for exams when he was eight.

When I enthusiastically showed him a study schedule I had planned for his first exams in Primary 2, all he did was to give it a cursory glance and mumble "okay", before moving on to other fun activities.

The same thing happened in Primary 3. After several instances of prodding him to revise for his mid-year exams and hearing him say "I already know my work", I decided to leave him be.

I could have forced him to sit down and revise, but thought it would not benefit him in the long run, since he was not self-motivated to learn.

Even though he said he wanted to do well, he was reluctant to put in the effort. So I thought it would do him good to learn the hard way - if he wanted good results, he would have to work for them himself.

I was frustrated that my repeated attempts to help him were not appreciated and decided not to be so "enthusiastic", since I was not the one sitting the exams.

He came back crying after his mathematics scores were released, because he scored almost 20 marks below what he had previously got - a result of insufficient practice, lack of exposure to different questions and carelessness.

I told him in a matter-of-fact manner that he should have done his revision and there was little point crying over it after all was said and done.

He spent the June holidays doing the revision he should have done before the exams.

It was an effective lesson. When I subsequently read up on ways to encourage self-motivation in a child, one of the suggestions was to allow the child to make his own decisions and face the consequences.

Since then, we have made a pact. I sit down with him to set targets for each subject before the exams. Once he reaches the targets, I do not make him do any revision or assessment books during the holidays.

And instead of prescribing and forcing him to do a certain number of pages of revision, I tell him what I think he needs to cover, but leave it up to him to plan when and how much he wants to do.

Having spent one vacation doing revision, the thought of playing during the entire next vacation was enough to motivate him. That, and the desire to continue to be in the same class as his best friend, who excels in mathematics.

It is so much more pleasant to deal with a self-motivated child than to have to cajole, force or nag a child to get a task done.

Experts say there are various ways to encourage a child to be self-motivated, and this motivation could be applied to studying, helping someone, or even keeping at a hobby.

There are also different levels of motivation. Ideally, a child should be motivated by internal factors - for instance, the innate desire to do a task well. Dangling carrots like external rewards may yield results faster, but a child motivated by external factors may be prompted to do a task only if a reward is dangled, or if there is a threat of punishment. Once that external factor is removed, the motivation will drop as well.

My son's Chinese penmanship was the best in Primary 2, when he got a teacher who somehow was able to motivate him to write neatly.

He would churn out pages of neat work each week. During the meet-the-parents session, I asked the teacher what her secret was to getting the children to do good work.

She said it was firm and high expectations, plus rewards of little trinkets she had sourced from travels overseas.

Unfortunately, this teacher taught him for only one year and his motivation for the subject has not been the same since.

Another way to encourage a child to be self-motivated is to hone in on his passion and encourage him to delve deeper in that area.

My son was once a reluctant reader and took weeks to finish a storybook when he was in Primary 1.

During the June holidays that year, his grandma asked if he had finished Roald Dahl's Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - a book I got him a couple of months before to whet his appetite for reading, since he was and still is a foodie.

His reply? "Grandma, it's the school holidays. Why are you asking me to read?"

I was determined to get him to love reading, and looked for different types and genres of books to interest him.

Following a child's interest is one of the recommended ways to encourage self-motivation to read.

So is modelling the behaviour. I made it a point to tell my son how much his papa and I enjoy reading our novels before bed.

I also told him how much I enjoyed Enid Blyton's books as a child, but to no avail. It was Geronimo Stilton, the mouse reporter, who got him hooked on reading.

He was then in the afternoon session and I would encourage him to read for a while every morning before watching cartoons.

We would also frequent the library and second-hand bookshops to look for books that he liked.

Something worked. By the end of that year, he was reading independently and asking for more storybooks each week.

It was a joy to see him devour book after book. These days, he reads everything, from novels to newspapers to autobiographies.

It is now a challenge getting him to put down a good book.

Understanding his strengths, personality, interests and learning style is critical to thinking of ways to motivate him.

And when all else fails, reverse psychology works for him.

So when he says he does not feel like doing his homework, I say: "Fine with me, but you have to explain to your teacher why it is not done." Then he gets it done.

I wish I could say that these strategies work across the board, and for all my kids, but children have different degrees of motivation. Strategies that work for one child might not work for another. And what was effective previously may not work all the time.

Just last week, I found out that my son has been slacking off on learning his weekly English spelling and Chinese tingxie "because the marks don't count".

It took years of trial and error to find some strategies that work to get him to be self-motivated, and from the looks of it, it is still a work in progress.

  • Jane Ng, a former education journalist, is now a freelance writer.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'A child's best motivation comes from within'. Subscribe