The house is quietly busy right now. In the last year, my eldest son has gotten majorly into martial arts and sports, and has created a strenuous daily workout routine that he does at home. Whatever the time of day, he’s likely to be found doing squats in the kitchen or planks on the living room floor. When not engaged in this punishing regime, he is probably immersed in his language practice which, right now, is likely to consist of poring over YouTube, deciphering song lyrics. My middle son, who recently tested the waters at the local school for a few months, is back to his usual interests, among which are watching political debates and comedy, discovering new music, researching our family tree, and creating his alternative map of the world. This map, which has been several months in the making, painstakingly details the different ethnic groups and indigenous people in each country of the world. My son researches their language and history and creates the natural territories and boundaries that might have been if it weren’t for the forces of colonialism. It’s a fairly mindblowing piece of work.
My daughter has spent the last week learning to paint with watercolours via Youtube tutorials. The learning process involves a lot of frustration and screwed up pieces of paper, but in the end she gets there, producing pieces of art that even she is proud of. I’ve also noticed that she is playing around with more sophisticated language. Whenever any of us comes up with a word she doesn’t know, she asks the meaning, and often tries to spell it out. A couple of days later, the word is likely to have made it into her own vocabulary and will just pop up naturally in conversation.
There are lots of other things in the mix, from learning to sing and play the piano to plotting long, complex journeys to exotic places, learning dance routines, and reading, to name a few.
None of them has been told, or even guided, to do any of these things. They are free to choose how they spend their time and these are just some of their personal (and often surprising to me) choices. There are no tests or rewards and they don’t care particularly about praise—one of my children in particular, actively dislikes praise. They are doing these things for themselves, to satisfy their own curiosities and desires.
Many people have told me that if their children could choose what they did, they would sit on the sofa all day, watching YouTube and eating biscuits. That they would “do nothing”. I doubt it (though the odd biscuit-eating day on the sofa may well be good for the soul). In fact, a brief look at some well-researched human development theories indicates that we’re getting this all the wrong way round. It isn’t that these three people are unusually self-motivated. Although they are immeasurably special to me, they are also fairly typical human beings. What has been thoroughly debunked—though it’s still the driving force behind how children are treated in our society—is the idea that humans only learn and do things when instructed by someone else (except for babies and toddlers who, we accept, are motivated to walk and talk all by themselves). To ours and our children’s detriment, we ignore the science behind how humans really learn and thrive.
Pioneered over 30 years ago by psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, Self-Determination Theory provides a framework for understanding human motivation and behaviour. It establishes that we are all programmed to learn and grow – this is simply what humans are driven to do. And, that when the growth hails from our own intrinsic desires and choices (rather than ones imposed on us), we are likely to lead far happier and fulfilling lives.
It further determines that, in order to be motivated human beings, living in accordance with our true selves, there are three basic innate needs that must be fulfilled. Extensive research around the world has shown that these needs are universal to all humans, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or culture. These needs are:
Competence is the confidence we acquire from mastering a skill and from feeling effective in what we do. If there’s an area in your life where you tend to know all the answers, or you ever just jumped into learning a new passion or interest, then you’ll know exactly how wonderful this feels. This is naturally entwined with the next need, autonomy. There is a big difference in learning something for a test because you have to (and perhaps forgetting it the next day), and choosing something yourself to master. Many children who learn beyond school have a deep knowledge of a number of subjects or activities they have chosen to explore. They get to experience the real satisfaction of true mastery.
The sense of having control over our own goals and choices is enormously important to us humans. On the flip side, feeling controlled or coerced is detrimental to our motivation. Without autonomy, we are thwarted in the world, unable to experience new things in our own time, or to pursue what is meaningful to us. Exercising control over a child’s learning is likely to kill the joy of learning, because you are essentially hijacking their personal journey and directing it on a path that suits you. Some children find this exertion of control more intolerable than others. If you have a PDA child, for example, you will know that their need for autonomy is a huge driving force for them. But, for any child (and any human), knowing that they have some control over their own actions and choices is fundamental to their wellbeing.
Enjoying a sense of belonging and attachment to others is essential to thriving and learning. Being surrounded by empathetic people who respect us and make us feel like we matter facilitates our desire to do things that are beneficial and fulfilling to us. It has also been shown that in relationships where children are supported in their basic needs for autonomy and competence, attachment tends to be higher.
For any parents who choose not to follow the mainstream route, Self-Determination Theory is a helpful framework to consider within the home. Our children are naturally in a constant state of growth and expansion, and our role isn’t to motivate them, but to meet these needs so they can easily tap into their innate intrinsic motivation.
Like all theories however, it looks beautifully clean and tidy on the page, but in the home is a far messier beast. Rather than guidelines to follow, I think it’s helpful to use this framework as a starting point — a way to notice what you find easy and what’s more challenging. Perhaps your child is becoming extremely competent in something you feel has little value. How about you just celebrate their dedication to becoming competent and let them enjoy the feeling? Hopefully they’ll be tapping into that motivating feeling throughout their life. Or, we may be kind and loving, but if we don’t trust our children enough to give them enough autonomy over their choices, not only are we going against their innate desire for autonomy, but we are almost certainly stifling their ability to discover what they can be competent in, resulting in a lot of frustration for all. Equally, if we are pushing them to be competent in lots of things and packing their days with activities, then we may be depriving them of real competence and the possibility of deep diving into something unique and meaningful to them.
These are just some of the questions we may need to sit with if we want to give our children the conditions they need to thrive and grow in accordance with their own intrinsic motivation. And the answers will depend entirely on our child, us and the particular situation. Sometimes we need to step back and give space and sometimes we need to come in closer and connect. Other times, because this is complicated work and none of us is perfect, the best we might be able to do is take a deep breath and, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “If you can do no good, at least do no harm.”…
And finally, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that patience really is a virtue. It can seem hard to hold back when your child makes choices that are so different from the ones you would make. But remembering that the important part of all of this is not so much what they’re doing, but how they’re doing it. They are learning how to make choices that feel right to them, how to acquire skills and to enjoy the feeling of being competent. They are figuring out how to manage their own curiosity, and their own expansion and growth. Holding them and supporting them in that messy and ever-evolving space so that they can tap into their own intrinsic motivation is undoubtedly the best we can do.