Dr. Ellen Braaten on Nurturing Intrinsic Motivation in Children

Dr. Ellen Braaten

In today’s fast-paced and achievement-oriented society, parents often find themselves grappling with the delicate balance between encouraging their children’s success and allowing them to explore their own passions and interests. Moreover, it’s hard to know when to let your child give up on something and when to push them just a bit more.

In a thought-provoking conversation with Dr. Ellen Braaten, renowned child neuropsychologist and author of Bright Kids Who Couldn’t Care Less: How to Rekindle Your Child’s Motivation, Parentology delves into the concepts of magical thinking, “ma-lazy” (a combination of malaise and lazy), apathy, and intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.

Dr. Braaten provides valuable insights into understanding and supporting children’s motivation, identifying their strengths, and fostering growth without discouragement.

The Perils of Magical Thinking and Unrealistic Expectations

In the foreword, Sheryl Sandberg discusses the notion of “magical thinking”, which emphasizes the unrealistic expectations parents often project onto their children. “When our child is born, we think that they’re capable of doing everything. Not only that, we think that they will do everything,” says Dr. Braaten.

Setting excessively high expectations can burden children with stress and demotivation, as they may feel incapable of living up to these unrealistic ideals. “We don’t think ‘Oh, she’s going to be a manager at whatever store’. We think they’re going to be the next president. Change the world, discover the cure for cancer. And some kids do grow up to do that, but most kids don’t,” she says. “Most of us just have lives where we try to find something that’s fulfilling, living with people who appreciate us and who we appreciate.”

When Fish Climb Trees: Embracing Individuality

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” (Author Unknown)

Drawing inspiration from this famous analogy, Dr. Braaten highlights that children can lose their motivation when they’re asked to do things they’re not good at. “That kind of thinking puts a lot of stress on kids to be somebody that they’re either not capable of being, or don’t want to be, which can lead to feeling unmotivated and not wanting to engage,” she says.

She urges parents to understand their child’s strengths and weaknesses, and not push them into activities that don’t match their abilities. By embracing their child’s uniqueness and allowing them to pursue what they enjoy, parents can help their children stay motivated and engaged.

Understanding Apathy in Children

In her book, Dr. Braaten introduces the concept of “ma-laziness,” a term coined by a concerned father during a therapy session. Ma-laziness refers to a state of demotivation and apathy that can arise when a child feels overwhelmed or disengaged. It can be a result of mismatched expectations, societal pressure, or even a lack of clarity about personal interests and goals.

Moreover, children who struggle with neurodiverse conditions, such as ADHD, can be considered by others to be “ma-lazy”, when really they’re struggling with the mental paralysis and procrastination that so often comes with a diagnosis.

Encouraging Stick-to-it-ness and Allowing Room to Quit

As a parent, it’s important to be attentive to signs of “ma-laziness” and differentiate it from genuine disinterest, temporary disinterest or insecurity. By understanding the root causes, parents can effectively support their children in navigating these feelings and regaining motivation.

One of the challenges parents face is finding the balance between encouraging their children to persevere with activities and recognizing when it’s appropriate to let them quit. Dr. Braaten suggests that open communication and setting realistic expectations from the outset are crucial.

“Talk about it before they even start [the activity]. Even with a five-year-old; ‘We’re signing you up for Little League. What do you want to get out of it?’” she says. “You’re setting a goal that this is what we’re all expecting to get out of that activity, and then check in with that.”

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It can be difficult to understand the root cause of wanting to quit, and more difficult as a parent to know when to push back.

“A child gets frustrated, sometimes it’s a bad coach, sometimes they don’t have the talent, any of those things. It’s okay to quit, but the better thing to do is to say, well, wait a minute, we committed to six weeks. We’re going to do this in six weeks. And at the end of six weeks, you can figure out what you want to do. You don’t have to stick with it. But you want to make sure as a parent that there isn’t a bad coach who’s shaming your child or he’s being bullied on the sports field,” says Dr. Braaten.

Equally important is not shaming your child for making the investment in the activity. “Parents need to be talking constantly with their kids about what’s working and what’s not. Then ask ‘What would make it better, and what do you want to do afterwards?’” she advises.

By discussing the goals and time commitment involved in an activity, parents can establish a shared understanding with their child. This allows the child to experience the activity fully while also providing an opportunity to reassess their interest and commitment at a later stage.

The Role of Apathy and Stress in Children’s Motivation

Apathy can be a common issue among children, particularly in high-stress environments or situations where they feel overwhelmed.

“I become apathetic because I’m overwhelmed,” says Dr. Braaten. “And the same thing happens with kids. Not only are they overwhelmed today, they’ll be overwhelmed next week. And then school ends and they’re off to camp and have tutoring, and their life becomes a series of never-ending tasks they have to do, and that’s a huge demotivator.”

She explains that apathy can also stem from a lack of clarity about personal interests and goals, or competing interests such as social media. “Social media is a competing interest. But I think we go to it when we are not happy. It’s not like ‘I’m getting up today, I’ve got a great day, I’m going to pick up my phone.’ It’s the opposite actually. It’s a symptom,” she says.

Dr. Braaten encourages parents to engage in open conversations with their children, allowing them to express their feelings and concerns to help them regain motivation and find joy in their pursuits.

Discovering Intrinsic Motivation: Aptitude, Pleasure, and Practice

Intrinsic motivation refers to the internal drive to engage in an activity for the sheer pleasure or personal fulfillment it brings. Conversely, extrinsic motivation derives from compensation to complete a task.

“What we want to do for kids is instill an intrinsic motivation for learning, for reading, for being kind, all of those things,” says Dr. Braaten. “We don’t want to have to pay them to read. Because when we get the signal that this is something someone has to reward us for, our brain is saying, it’s not rewarding in and of itself.”

She emphasizes the significance of three key elements in fostering intrinsic motivation: aptitude, pleasure, and practice (APP). Aptitude involves understanding and capitalizing on a child’s unique strengths and abilities.

“It’s what we can do. For example, I am a really good swimmer, but I’m bad at climbing trees. So I need to know that about myself. I need to know the good and the bad,” says Dr. Braaten. “Aptitude isn’t necessarily intelligence. We need to start thinking about kids’ aptitude in broader terms; you can have an aptitude in forgiveness, you can have an aptitude in humor, you can have an aptitude in kindness. Be a super kind person. You’re going to go farther than the person getting a lot of A’s.”

It would be ideal if parents encouraged their children to explore their passions and develop expertise in areas that bring them joy. Pleasure entails recognizing and celebrating the enjoyment children derive from their activities.

“I’ve had parents come and say to me that their child’s not happy, and I’d ask ‘Well, have you ever asked them what makes them happy?’” says Dr. Braaten. “Many parents respond with ‘I wouldn’t want to ask him that. What if I don’t like what he said?’ That’s how fragile we are in our culture about true pleasure, just the enjoyment of life.” Parents can provide positive reinforcement by acknowledging and appreciating their child’s engagement and passion.

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Finally, practice refers to the importance of providing children with opportunities for independent exploration and growth. By giving children the freedom to pursue their interests and practice their skills, parents support their development of intrinsic motivation. “For kids, practice is really about ‘What can I do independently?’” she says. “For parents, the question is ‘Who is my child? What sort of things do they like to do independently? What kind of things give them pleasure?’”

Reframing Challenges and Instilling a Growth Mindset

Dr. Braaten encourages parents to reframe challenges as opportunities for growth and learning. By embracing a growth mindset, children can develop resilience and a willingness to take on new challenges.

Parents can support this mindset by providing constructive feedback, focusing on effort rather than solely on outcomes, and encouraging a sense of curiosity and exploration. “Kids are aware of the things they’re not good at. If I give a diagnosis of Dyslexia, for example, parents often worry how they’ll tell their child that he’s not very good at reading. Your child already knows,” she says. “So a lot of it is empathizing with your child and saying, listen, I’ve seen you struggle with paying attention. Or when your teacher writes and says it’s hard for you to stay in your seat in school, I worry about you.”

Nurturing intrinsic motivation in children is a delicate task that requires a nuanced understanding of their individual strengths, interests, and limitations. “Acknowledge it, and empathize with your child. If you also had some of that when you were younger, if you had ADHD as a child for example, share that with them,” says Dr. Braaten. “Let them know that kids grow up into adults who are successful. There is always a way of reframing some of these things as positive qualities.”

By fostering a sense of autonomy, supporting open communication, and celebrating their child’s achievements and efforts, parents can empower their children to pursue their passions, discover intrinsic motivation, and lead fulfilling lives driven by genuine joy and curiosity.

Alexis Nicols

Alexis is a full-time writer, graphic designer and mom in Ontario, Canada. She's obsessed with all things related to film, TV and streaming, particularly through the lens of her two boys.

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