What Is Inspiring? (Part 3–Intrinsic Motivation)

This morning, after months of indifference, my six-year-old daughter walked over to the piano and played “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Over a year ago, I had taught her how to play the song. But after a few days, her interest had waned, and whenever I asked if she wanted to do more piano with me, she always said “no.”

What inspired her to get up and play this morning? I’m not sure. I didn’t do anything differently. Our home and our routine was the same. So, something must have changed inside of her. A motivational psychologist would say she was “intrinsically motivated.”

Intrinsic motivation is when you do something because you want to do it. It’s a goal you set for yourself. So when I make myself a sandwich because I’m hungry, or my mom teaches herself to play the flute at thirty six because she has always wanted to, or when my three year old draws with markers all over my bed because she’s likes the way it looks—intrinsic motivation is at work—for better or for worse!

Most scientists agree that there are three fundamental needs that must be met for intrinsic motivation to flourish–relatedness, competence and autonomy. (Edward Deci and Richard Ryan proposed these ideas in what they call their “Self-Determination Theory.”)

Relatedness is the need to feel loved and to be loved by others—to feel connected to other people. A few years ago, a boy joined the Sunday school class that I taught after spending the first eight years of his life in an incredibly abusive home. He would sit in his chair, week after week, arms folded, glaring defiantly at me as I tried to teach the lesson. He had absolutely no desire to learn anything. (It was a very difficult year for both of us!) But then he was adopted into a loving and supportive home. As he started to feel safe and secure—and as he felt like he had people who love him and that he can love—his desire to participate and learn at church blossomed. Now he is one of my favorite students.

The second human need to allow intrinsic motivation to flourish is competence. Competence is being able to feel like you can do something—that you can be successful in what you attempt. My first child had the hardest time getting dressed when she was younger. At three, four, five, even six, when it was time to get dressed in the morning, she would just stand in front of her dresser and cry or she would wander around her room and get distracted because she felt overwhelmed at all the choices. If I picked something out for her, she would refuse to wear it because I had made the choice for her. Short of helping her do it, she simply would not get dressed on her own. Now that she’s older, it’s no longer an issue. Because she now feels competent and capable at getting dressed—she’s no longer overwhelmed. She is intrinsically motivated to do it on her own.

The third human need to allow intrinsic motivation to flourish is autonomy. Autonomy is when you feel like you can choose and organize your own experiences—to feel like you have freedom—to feel like you have control. My first child has always loved helping me in the kitchen. About two years ago, she told me that she wanted to make bread all by herself. I suggested that she try using one of my recipes, but she insisted she wanted to do it without any help. After she had started, I couldn’t help myself, and I intervened. I explained that if she did this and added that, her bread would actually work, and if she didn’t, it wouldn’t. She pushed back, but I was so intent on making sure that her experiment worked, that I didn’t stop. She finally acquiesced and did the things I suggested. The bread turned out great—we even got to eat it as part of dinner. But my daughter didn’t ask to cook again for over a year. Because I had taken away her autonomy, I had killed her intrinsic motivation to cook. Fortunately, over the past year, she has started to dabble in the kitchen again, and I have wisely given her wide latitude to do whatever she wants—even if it means she’s going to fail.

So back to my story of my daughter playing the piano. Why did she decide to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb”? I’ll probably never know for sure, but here’s my guess.

While I sometimes asked if she wanted to practice with me, I never pushed or forced, so our relatedness was strong. And the choice to practice was hers, so her autonomy was intact.

And competence? I figure that a year ago, the idea of playing the song felt too hard. She tried a little, didn’t feel competent, and decided to stop. Then, after a year of stewing about the idea and watching her older brother and sister play instruments, she slowly gained the sense that she could do it–and so she was willing to try again.

Here’s to hoping that I can do my part to help fulfill all three of her needs–relatedness, competence, and autonomy–so that she continues to feel intrinsically motivated to play.

As you spend time with your children this week, analyze how their three basic needs currently stand. How is your relationship with them? How competent do they feel? How much autonomy do they have?

If things are less than ideal (and aren’t they for all of us!?!), is there something you could do to better fulfill their needs?

Next week we’ll talk about the exciting connection between these basic human needs (particularly autonomy!) and inspiring kids to learn.

In the spirit of full disclosure, most of the information found in this post was taken from a book I highly recommend entitled Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. Dr. Halvorson does a masterful job of weaving antidotes, scientific studies, and an accessible tone to explain the psychology behind goals and how we can make sure we achieve the goals we set.

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2 Comments

Filed under Theory Behind It All

2 responses to “What Is Inspiring? (Part 3–Intrinsic Motivation)

  1. I am curious to learn more about competence and how to help your kids with that aspect. How do you help them overcome the “I can’t do it” experiences; or maybe even “I don’t want to try because either I know I will fail or it’s too hard to try” without taking away autonomy? Can you tell we have had this issue!!?? Interested to hear what you think. Thanks.

    • taperkey

      That’s a great question. And we definitely have that issue at our house, too. I’ll address that in more depth in a future post.

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