Family Magazine

Motivating Your Children in the Face of Failure

By Expatdoctormom1 @ExpatDoctorMom


 Children who are intrinsically motivated are easy to teach, easy to encourage and learn readily.  But not all children are intrinsically motivated.  Some are extrinsically (aka motivated by external rewards) motivated.  Can you teach a child to be motivated intrinsically?

To understand motivation let’s explore motivation a little further.  John William Atkinson, an American psychologist pioneered the study of motivation in the 1960’s.  He described 2 types of people: success seekers and failure avoiders.  Success seekers were more motivated to succeed after a failure while failure avoiders decreased their efforts after failing a task.

How does this apply to children?  Not surprisingly all the things that apply to teaching your child: respect, discipline, happiness etc. apply to teaching a child motivation and more importantly how to comeback after a failure.


How do you facilitate intrinsic motivation?

It is important to know that an extrinsically motivated child is less likely to be motivated when external incentives are removed. I am not saying to never extrinsically motivate but if you choose to do so; do so sparingly and limit the level of rewards.

Here is a list of tips to help intrinsically motivate.  All of the below can apply to homework, sports or any endeavor:


  • Promote a child’s control over the activity
  • Ensure that there is at an “ideal point” of challenge
  • Provoke your child’s curiosity
  • Add an element of fun to an undesirable task
  • Praise them when they do a good job


If you yourself have control over a task don’t you feel more empowered?  This control can be as simple as: Where do you want to do your homework? What time do you want to do it? With mommy or daddy?  The same can go for practicing a sport.

When a child is not challenged enough, they are less likely to do more than what is asked.  The converse is also true: a child who is challenged too much may give up because they get frustrated.  For the tasks that are too hard, break them up into smaller tasks, present the problem in different ways, and if it is simply not sinking in, put it aside for a while.  “Sometimes it helps mommy to think about harder problems awhile, let’s put this aside and come back to it later.”

Provoke their curiosity about learning.  Ask questions about life around you.  Look, the worms are out on the sidewalk after the rain. What do you think makes them come out? The birds are all flying in a group.  Why do you think they do this?

And most importantly, associate a fun activity with a task that is least desirable.  Play music, put on a silly wig or dance only when you do that least favorable task.

Our ever so independent daughter started buckling herself into her car seat.  The first time she did it, I cheered her: “Well done! Bravo”  This small praise went a long way.  She didn’t know that the act would bring praise but did it anyway.  Now knowing it is something “good” to do, she always buckles herself in to her seat.  While this last tip involves initial extrinsic motivation, the goal is to allow your child to feel good about the positive things they have done so that in the future these “good” acts are done on their own.


How to Help Your Child Deal with Failure?

First and foremost, talk to your child about the failure in a non-judgmental way. Ask them how it made them feel? Reassure them that everyone fails at some point.  Imagine my son’s surprise when I relayed one of my failures after he failed.  You would have thought that the world was ending by his response. Flattering to be reminded that your children think you are infallible.

Focus on your child’s performance not the failure.  If they are playing a sport how did they do within the team? If it is a school assignment, what parts did they get right?  Were they close to getting the right answer etc.?

Ultimately your child will accept the failure more readily if they themselves have self confidence which comes from everything good you as a parent have done to this point: loving them, nurturing them, believing in them.

Additionally teaching optimism helps as it allows them to comeback from their failures more readily.  You can teach optimism through humor.  Kids love to be silly.  Set aside time to be silly with your child.  Pretend to be your favorite characters from a book or movie.  Talk about something silly you yourself did and poke fun at it.

It is important to praise children multiple times per day!  It is all too easy to scold or give negative feedback.  Avoid: no, don’t, stop and can’t.   Say if you do this chore then you can enjoy a fun afternoon at the park with mommy instead of “If you don’t do your chore then you can’t go to the park.”

And don’t forget to model a positive response to failure yourself. Your day didn’t go as planned so now what?  Explain to your children how you will move forward from the setback.  I always ask my son: “How are we going to make lemonade… out of those lemons?” when things don’t go according to plan.


Your Turn

How do you motivate your children?

Photo credit: paperfacets

This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of Woman Today magazine.


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