Behaviour & Emotions Core Concepts

Self-determination theory 101: Why motivation matters

Self determination theory 3

Here’s an interesting question: Why do people do the things they do? And here’s one that’s probably even more important to us parents: How can we motivate our children to do the right thing?

Self-Determination Theory was developed in 1985 by American psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan as a theory of human motivation. Deci and Ryan propose that there are two types of motivation – self-determined (or internal), and controlled (or external) motivation. Humans (including children) are motivated to do things they find fun, interesting or meaningful. They’re also motivated when they agree with the task and when the task is in line with their desires and values. This is self-determined motivation.

They’re also motivated when they agree with the task and when the task is in line with their desires and values.

The opposite to this is controlled motivation – when humans do something because they are coerced, manipulated or pressured to do it. This includes doing things to earn a reward or avoid a punishment, and doing things out of fear or guilt. For example, kids who jump straight to clearing the table after dinner because there is a promise of ice cream. Or kids who’ll shove the clothes all over their floor under the bed in the hope that the bedroom will be deemed ‘tidy’ and the iPad won’t be confiscated for the weekend.

Playing the long game

But hang on, let's go back to that 'controlled motivation' for a second. Isn’t that what parents are supposed to do?

  • Tell their children what to do and what not to do.
  • Give them rewards to motivate them to do the right thing and consequences to deter them from doing the wrong thing.
  • Plus, punish them when they do the wrong thing.

Isn’t that all part of our job description? Because, let’s face it – what child LIKES tidying their room, giving up the iPad or eating all their vegetables?

While these strategies might appear successful in the short-term (because the child does the right thing, i.e the table is cleared, the bedroom is kinda tidy), the long-term effect of controlled motivation can be that the child becomes resentful, disengaged and rebellious. This is associated with a range of negative outcomes, such as low self-esteem, poor emotional regulation, oppositional, defiant and antisocial behaviours, anxiety and depression and mental health difficulties. Ouch.

On the other hand, children whose parents have developed self-determined motivation in them thrive at home and school. They experience more positive emotions, use positive coping strategies in stressful situations, have higher levels of concentration, persistence and effort, choose better friends, make good decisions, have fewer problems with drugs and alcohol, and ironically, accept more influence from their parents. And what parent doesn’t want that!?! So how can we cultivate self-determined motivation in our children?

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Deci and Ryan say that self-determined motivation is most likely to develop when three basic psychological needs are fulfilled. All humans have three needs for optimal motivation and well-being. These are:

  1. Relatedness: We need to feel connected and have a sense of belonging. We need to feel cared for and to care for others.

  2. Competence: We need to feel effective. We need to learn, practise and master some skills. We need to have a range of experiences, gain insights and set and achieve realistic goals.

  3. Autonomy: We need to make our own choices and feel in control. We need to do what we find meaningful, and to be able to think and make decisions for ourselves.

So, if this is what children require in order to experience their needs being met, to develop self-determined motivation and to experience the associated positive outcomes, what do parents need to do to support their children? Let’s consider autonomy-supportive parenting.

It's all in the technique

Autonomy-supportive parents...

  • Establish rules, limits and demands with their children, within developmentally appropriate guidelines, and they communicate the reasons and rationale for the rules. Reasons may include an element of concern for their child's safety, or because doing certain things and avoiding others are good for our child. The reason and rationale will never be “...because I said so!” Rather, it will sound more like “We need to know where you are after school so you need to check in with us before your go to a friend’s house.” Or “You need to get enough sleep so you're not late for school and also so you can play well at your tournament this weekend. That’s why our family’s time limit on devices is 8PM on a weeknight.” And “It's better for you, your class mates and your teacher if you go to school in clean clothes, so can you please make sure your dirty socks and underwear make it to the laundry each night – instead of them crawling under your bed?”

  • Explore their child's feelings, recognise their child’s perspective, listen responsively and work together to ensure everyone can work within those boundaries. In doing so, rewards and consequences may become unnecessary, as children buy-in to the rules and want to do the right thing.

  • Offer choices, encourage initiative and promote responsibility. Autonomy-supportive parents allow their child to make their own decisions, to pursue their goals and passions, and to enjoy their achievements. Kids thrive when they are challenged but not threatened, when they are given the opportunity to handle as much as they can without being overwhelmed, and to experience succeeding or failing on their own. This might sound something like: “I’m really proud of you for signing up for cross country, I know it was a brave step. Let me know if you want to do some extra practise sometime and we can work out a plan to make it happen.” Children need to experience checking in with themselves and their decisions.

  • Minimise their use of controlling techniques. Autonomy-supportive parents avoid criticism, intimidation and threats. They don’t withhold affection and attention when their child is misbehaving, and they don’t instil fear or guilt. They are able to separate the undesirable behaviour from their child’s character.

Children will make good decisions even when nobody is watching, because it is a good decision, not because they’re feeling guilt, shame or fear.

If parents can regularly use these autonomy-supportive parenting techniques, they will be better able to get their children to do the right thing because it is the right thing, not because the child wants to earn something good or avoid something bad. They will make good decisions even when nobody is watching, because it is a good decision, not because they’re feeling guilt, shame or fear.

And that’s the goal, right? To raise capable, confident kids who make great choices for themselves – especially as they journey through adolescence and prepare to ‘fly the nest’. In the long-run, motivation that is self-determined produces excellent flatmates, diligent employees and considerate, kind young people who return home to visit their parents not just because there’s always food in the fridge, but because they value relationship and connection. (And appreciate all the wonderful things their parents have done for them and regularly want to show their gratitude. Okay, that might be pushing it too far.)

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Katherine Tarr

Katherine Tarr

Katherine is a Child and Family Psychologist with experience working in both the early intervention and education settings. She was part of our Programme Development team where she was responsible for researching and developing training programmes to equip facilitators to deliver our courses to a high standard. Prior to training as a psychologist, Katherine was a high school teacher and an outdoor instructor. She has four primary school aged children and in their spare time the family enjoys having adventures in the outdoors.

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