In my last post, I gave an overview of the types of motivation and reasons why we should promote autonomous motivation (versus controlled motivation) in our children.  To briefly summarize, autonomous behavior comes from choice (the behavior is personally enjoyable, meaningful, or valuable), and controlled behavior comes from compliance, (to earn a reward, avoid a punishment, minimize guilt, or preserve self-worth).  In this post, I will discuss how you can promote autonomous motivation with your kids. 

First, let’s go back to those educational psychology rock stars I mentioned in my previous post, Deci and Ryan.  According to their Self-Determination Theory, everyone has 3 basic psychological needs that provide the energy for motivated behavior:

1) Autonomy – feeling in control of your own life and behavior

2) Competence – feeling capable of accomplishing what’s important to you

3) Relatedness – feeling a warm connection with others

The more your needs are met, the more autonomous your motivation is.   These needs have been well-researched and found universally across ages, sex, gender, and cultures.

Okay, so if autonomy, competence, and relatedness are the ingredients for autonomous motivation, how do you promote autonomous motivation in your child?  You provide an environment in which these needs are met.  There’s a term for this kind of environment: autonomy-supportive.  Autonomy-supportive environments aim to foster a child’s natural tendency to be curious and interested in learning.  Let me say that again: Children are innately curious and motivated to learn.  Here are five tips on providing an autonomy-supportive environment and fostering autonomous motivation with your child.    

1) Acknowledge and accept your child’s perspective.  Your child is an active participant in your interactions with them and, as such, their perspective is as important and valid as yours.  Take time to listen to them noncritically.  They probably have some ideas of how they would like to learn or what they would like to have happen at home.  I periodically check in with my daughter about how she thinks distance learning is going: what learning activities she likes and doesn’t like, if she has any ideas we should try, what topics she’s interested in, etc. Sometimes I find out that she didn’t like an activity I thought was awesome and fun. She was just too polite to tell me in the moment.  Sometimes she tells me she really liked something that I thought was just okay and she wants to do more activities like that. 

Accepting their perspective will also help you keep calm when you’ve explained for the fifth time a math concept or how the silent E works or when your kid becomes frustrated.  Your child’s learning content is old hat to you.  It’s hard to remember when it was new and blew your mind. A little bit of empathy can really help your child feel valued and heard, “I remember getting really frustrated when I learned long division too,” or “I get frustrated sometimes when I learn new things too.  It can be hard to learn new things.”  

2) Allow your child to accomplish tasks in their own way.  Sometimes your child’s way is not at all the way you would do it.  Sometimes their way is harder and slower than your way.  Sometimes their way makes NO sense at all to you.  But that’s okay.  Resist the temptation to hurry them or to show them a “better” way.  Giving them the freedom to choose how to accomplish an everyday task builds autonomy and competence and you accepting their efforts in a non-critical way builds relatedness.  For example, my son puts his clean laundry away one piece at a time, even the individual underwear and socks.  One . . . piece . . . at . . . a . . . time.  It takes a looooooong time, but you know what?  They’re his clothes, and I want him to learn how to handle his own laundry and to feel competent in his responsibilities, so I keep my mouth shut and let him own that chore.

3) Make learning interactive and relevant.  If you have learning materials, don’t hoard them for only you to use. Let your kid use them too. Use objects around the house; learn fractions with a cooking lesson; go on nature scavenger hunts; play I-spy to reinforce shapes, colors, and directional terms; learn about maps by walking the neighborhood with Google Maps; learn with LEGOs, etc. When we were doing distance learning in the spring, one of my daughter’s favorite things to do was to reverse roles, with her becoming the teacher and me the student. Science is particularly great for hands-on learning.  Don’t worry if you don’t know what to do.  The Internet is full of ideas for FREE, and there are tons of books with ideas too.   

Kids are learning everything for the first time so it can be difficult for them to see the big picture of how all this school “stuff” fits into their life and why it’s important.  Why is it important to learn proper grammar?  How is geometry useful?  Why do we need to learn history or science?  Help your child connect the dots between school lessons and real life.  Doing so will make learning much more interesting and relevant.  If you are having trouble yourself connecting the dots (because sometimes it really is hard to see why calculus is important to learn when you want to be an artist), ask someone for help, like your kid’s teacher or your math guru friend.  Or do an internet search.  Look for examples of integrated or multi-disciplinary curricula online for ideas on how to connect those dots and make learning more relevant to real life.        

4) Offer progress-enabling hints when you kid is stuck instead of telling them the answer.  This is an age-old teaching technique called scaffolding in which you foster mastery by providing just enough help to support learning but not too little help that your child becomes frustrated.  For example, my daughter is an early reader so that means she’s often coming to me asking what a word is.  Instead of telling her the word, I prompt her to sound it out.  Usually she can get it from just that prompting, but if she gives me a blank stare, I narrow my guidance by asking her what sound the first letter makes, then the second letter, and so on, and we sound it out together.   

5) Offer choices to your child as much as possible.  This comes with a huge warning though: Do NOT offer an option if you are not okay with your child choosing it.  In my personal experience, my kids almost always choose my least-preferred option, so I make sure that I truly am okay with any options I give them.  If you offer a choice, you need to follow-through on it, or you will not only be denying your kid autonomy but also communicating that they do not make good choices and they cannot trust you to follow-through. 

To be clear, a choice does not mean free reign.  Sometimes a situation warrants safety or other considerations such as family needs.  As the parent, you can give your child choices with parameters that are acceptable to you.  So, what should be a choice?  Any and all situations that have flexibility in them: what time to start school work (within the parameters of your family or school schedule), what subjects to start with, how to complete an assignment (within the parameters of the assignment), what clothing to wear (my kids have been known to pull off some questionable combos like gingham shorts with a polka dot shirt, my son often wears his sister’s skirts, and my daughter has worn a knit owl toboggan for over a month this summer, including on the beach), what outerwear to wear (with the parameter that the kid has to be safe – as in, if they are shivering from the cold, it’s time to wear a coat), how to arrange their kid spaces at home (with the parameter that the room is safe), etc.  

When you set parameters, be sure to explain your rationale behind the parameters.  Otherwise, your parameters may feel arbitrary and controlling.  I’ll give you hint: Your rationale should not be, “Because I said so.”  I know we probably all heard that growing up, but I promise that you will get much more autonomous motivation and buy-in from your kid if they understand why a rule is a rule.  For example, my daughter at times keeps her room messier (way messier) than I prefer, but it’s her room, and I think it’s important that she has autonomy over its appearance.  My only rule is that we have to be able to walk safely and easily to her bed, dresser, and closet so that no one falls and gets hurt or breaks a toy.  She understands that and keeps the main pathways picked up without grumbling.     

Now that you have some ideas of how to promote autonomous motivation with your child, I’ll give you a quick list of things to avoid.

1) Don’t say, “Let’s just get through this so we can be done.”  Learning is more about the journey than the destination.  When you focus your child on the end result instead of the process of learning, you are thwarting your child’s predisposition to be autonomously motivated to learn.  Maybe your child is already not autonomously motivated to learn a particular topic, but talking of “just getting through it” will not help in any way and will likely strengthen their controlled motivation.  In other words, it won’t help and may probably hurt.

2) Don’t use controlling vocabulary like “should”, “must”, “have to”, and “need to”.

3) Don’t use pressure tactics like guilt, love withdrawal, verbal hostility, and punishment.

Whew! Have I written a lot!  Hopefully you will find an idea or two in my ramblings that will work for you and your kid.    

Thanks for reading!


Bartholomew, K. J., Ntoumanis, N., Ryan, R. M., Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C. (2011). Psychological need thwarting in the sport context: Assessing the darker side of athletic experience. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 33, 75-102.

Chua, L. L. (2010) Differences between autonomy-supportive and controlling behaviours. Motivation in Educational Research Laboratory, NIE

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26(3&4), 325-346.

van der Kaap- Deeder, Jolene & Vansteenkiste, Maarten & Soenens, Bart & Loeys, Tom & Mabbe, Elien & Gargurevich, Rafael. (2015). Autonomy-Supportive Parenting and Autonomy-Supportive Sibling Interactions: The Role of Mothers’ and Siblings’ Psychological Need Satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 10.1177/0146167215602225.

Vansteenkiste, M., & Ryan, R. M. (2013). On psychological growth and vulnerability: Basic psychological need satisfaction and need frustration as a unifying principle.  Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 23(3), 263-280.