Musings on Motivation

By Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW

Parents are commonly frustrated by what they see as a lack of motivation in their children. I often hear things like:

No matter a child’s age, parents and caregivers tend to worry about these behaviors. And the behaviors are happening, it is not your imagination. They really do stall at bedtime, forget to hang up their towel, and drag their feet when you’re trying to get out the door. However, there are some ways to reframe and think outside the box about why they occur that can take the edge off.
Are they really not motivated? Or are they not motivated to do what you want them to do?
Little kids especially are quite motivated – they are nonstop action! Have you ever seen the tracking of a toddler moving around a classroom of activities? It looks like a spiderweb. Turns out they are extremely motivated. But because of their immaturity, they are motivated to explore, learn, and discover. They are not particularly motivated to stop doing those things to brush their teeth. Consider your child may be so motivated to do those other things that they cannot switch gears to cooperate without a struggle.

Are they really unmotivated? Or have they not fully wired the part of the brain responsible for executive function?
When it seems like your child just cannot: 1) follow through on tasks, 2) keep track of their belongings, or 3) remember or follow routines, please consider that the part of their brain responsible for this kind of functioning – CEO-type, forward-thinking and planning – is still growing and won’t be fully wired until their mid-to late-20s. Yikes! In many ways, the answer to immaturity is time, but that doesn’t mean you should give up on supporting your child in having responsibilities or being motivated. But it does mean you may need to find creative ways to remind, ask them what feels supportive, and help them create systems that work. It does take time to build habits, no matter your age.

Are they not motivated? Or are they still learning about themselves and what actually motivates them?
?What if we regarded figuring out what motivates you as part of growing up? Some people are motivated by grades, or being outside, or having a cleaned-up space, and some people are not. Most humans start off (as noted) curious, motivated learners who explore everything. So, remember that – we are all?born motivated. Motivated to learn and also to survive. When kids don’t seem motivated, get curious, ask questions, give context, and offer support and scaffolding (help them set alarms, put up notes/visual reminders, or do tasks in tandem at first).

The classic response to someone who seems unmotivated is to think they need an incentive to get them going; a reward or prize, or a punishment – a consequence that will motivate them to do what needs to be done. However, research shows that rewards (and punishments) are only effective for the short-term and don’t have lasting impact or change behavior.
TED Talk from Daniel Pink: The Puzzle of Motivation:

Sarah MacLaughlin is a parent coach, social worker, and child development nerd. She is author of two books for parents and caregivers: What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and Raising Humans With Heart: Not a How-To Manual. She is also mom to a teenager who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Follow on
IG: @sarahmaclaughlin and learn more at