For most parents, finding common ground with a growing child can often be a challenging process. Increasingly, however, more and more parents are discovering the power of supporting their child’s interests to help their children succeed in both school and in their social lives. In large part, this process mainly comes down to the power of intrinsic motivation in enabling us to succeed in a healthy and self-confident way.


Intrinsic motivation occurs when a person is driven by their own desire to improve their performance within a particular field. Conversely, extrinsic motivation occurs when a person feels pressure from others to act or behave in a certain fashion.


Suppose, for example, that a child is receiving lackluster grades in school. In response, a parent tries to pressure their child into pursuing a particular course of action. They may try to instill a fear of failure in their child or ground them if they don’t come home with straight As on their next report card. In this scenario, a parent may be extremely surprised when none of these tactics work. They shouldn’t be!


At the end of the day, what the parent is seeing (or in fact isn’t seeing) in this case is a child who has no intrinsic motivation to succeed in their schoolwork. The child isn’t passionate about their classes. They likely do as little work as possible in order to make time for things that they actually enjoy. Perhaps the child only completes their homework assignments in order to avoid punishment.


It is easy to see how such a child can lose their way academically. In fact, study after study has shown that guilt, shame, and punishment are extremely ineffective responses to problematic behavior on the part of children.


Now let’s imagine another child at the same school. This child loves to read. Given enough free time, the child will spend the whole day absorbed in a novel or set of comic books. However, their grades at school leave much to be desired.


This is where a parent who supports their child’s interests will see a solution where other parents may only see a problem. In this case, the child is driven to read by an intrinsic motivation to do so; they feel passionate about the activity and need no outside pressure to continue pursuing their chosen course of action. To the child, reading is not a chore but a hobby.


Such a child will develop a range of complementary interests that will grow naturally as a result of their reading habit. They will likely be good at reading-comprehension, and they will probably demonstrate a talent for completing written homework assignments such as essays or book reports. In other words, the capability to succeed in school is there. It is now a matter of bringing that capability to the forefront.


A parent in this case might try something like enrolling their child in a local community college class to see how their child responds to a more challenging curriculum. Even better, the parent might take the class alongside their child. In the evenings, they might simply watch lectures posted by different universities online. (In recent years, even top schools like Harvard and MIT have started posting free coursework on the Internet.)


If enrolling in a college class isn’t possible, a parent may simply play up the positive aspects of their child’s performance in school. When the child brings home a good grade on a paper, for example, the parent could say how proud they feel about the hard work that went into achieving the grade.


Positive motivation is an extremely powerful force, and any parent who doesn’t realize the potential of this kind of motivation is selling the parenting process short.


In this case, the parent described above might realize that by harnessing their child’s interests, they will be able to inspire their child to work harder in school.


Once a child has a passion for a particular subject, they will pursue their work because they want to excel rather than because they have to excel. From that point on, a child will develop a healthy sense of self-esteem around their work ethic. Truly, that is the kind of work ethic that really matters in the long-term.