Thinking about Intrinsic Motivation

Tanya Kemp

Raising an intrinsically motivated child has been a priority for me even before I had Lily. I wanted my child, one day, to be driven by an internal desire to learn, be kind, have social responsibility, and succeed in life. Being driven by an internal reward – a feeling of success, mastery, fulfilment, to me is key to achieving a life worth living. Being motivated only by external rewards: stickers, M&M’s, praise, or money, to me spelled a life of being a victim and blaming others for your own unhappiness. 

This is actually backed by research, so I wasn’t too far off. 

The research says that if someone is offered an external award for doing something – even if it is something they may have really loved doing, they will lose motivation to keep going. For example, participants in a research study were given a jigsaw puzzle to complete. One half of the participants were told that they would be paid to do the jigsaw. Once the task was completed, participants were invited to hang around and do more jigsaw puzzles. It was found that those who were NOT paid, were more likely to stick round and enjoy the activity further. 

Food for thought. 

How do we apply this to our parenting, and in particular, parenting autistic kids. Igniting and nurturing intrinsic motivation is rooted in connection, mastery/competence and autonomy. Who would have known – relationship is, again, at the core of what matters! ☺

We, as parents hold the key to helping our kids stay internally motivated (because children are actually born with intrinsic motivation – it is the adults who introduced rewards and bribery ☺).

Growth seeking motivation is impacted for autistic kids in the early years. For many reasons our kids didn’t interact with the world in the same way as their neurotypical counterparts and with parents often only learning much later about what their child needs to feel regulated and safe, autistic babies and young children spend a lot of time focusing on being regulated as opposed to expanding their world. Their overwhelm as a result of a different processing system living in a world created for neurotypical brains, held them back from exploring as enthusiastically and confidently, especially insofar as dynamic systems are concerned. You will see your child engaging meaningfully, confidently and enthusiastically with their special interests and they do this regardless of rewards from you. They are VERY motivated. In more dynamic systems, where other children are involved or there are more channels of information that require processing at the same time, our kids may start to feel overwhelmed, confused and unsure of themselves. Their disengagement may look like a lack of motivation, but really it is rooted in them being in an environment, that doesn’t cater to their strengths.

As parents we can work on our guiding style, so we don’t overwhelm our children and we create ‘just right’ opportunities to engage and feel successful in dynamic systems. In so doing we are guiding our children’s amazing minds, not through rewards or (god forbid) punishment, but through connection, creating mastery experiences/feelings of competence, and autonomy.

How do we do this?

Connection: Within the safety of the guiding relationship, our kids become more willing and able to engage in dynamic systems. We set up activities that we know will frame a learning objective, and we scaffold it to promote our child’s ability to be competent and experience mastery. We don’t ‘force’ engagement or get our children to do anything because of bribery or the promise of external rewards. Engagements are invitations, opportunities and our children have the option to engage and respond/or not.

Mastery/Competence: We think about activities and scaffold them so as to ensure competence. We spotlight problems as opposed to solutions, helping our children to notice what they are struggling with, and what they are therefore OVERCOMING by their own hard work, thinking and problem-solving – which enhances the feeling of reward for mastery. This goes much MUCH further than the usual ‘good job’ when everything has resolved the way we wanted it to. The value of the experience is not in the outcome – it is in the process…and part of the process is the struggle. That struggle is important, because without the struggle, we wouldn’t feel so great about what we have achieved!

Autonomy: Framed engagements are invitations and opportunities. They aren’t forced on our kids. They have the choice and can exercise autonomy. We engage our kids in collaborative problem-solving giving them a voice and input, empowering them to be an active participant in family life. Spotlighting problems, and the child’s actions to overcome the problems, spotlights their autonomy in completing a task…their impact on their experience and environment – their sense of self. Giving time to process – waiting, watching for the signs that the wheels are turning and assuming competence, gives your child the space and containment in which to join the dots and figure stuff out!

“ you worked so hard on that tricky puzzle.”; “you persevered, when it would have been easier to give up” and “that was hard, but you did it” certainly beats: “good job!”; “you’re so smart” or “you’re the best”.

How can we as parents further promote a drive for internal motivation?

  1. Praise effort rather than innate abilities or success – hard work pays and if the spotlight is on effort regardless of the outcome, we are encouraging working hard on the things that matter

  1. Point out progress – don’t hold out for the end goal – notice the small steps along the way, the little parts of the bigger task mastered so your child can notice the progress rather than only the end product. 

  1. Be realistic with your expectations: no one feels motivated every day – don’t expect your kids to be any different

  1. Investigate ‘lack of motivation’ through the lense of: is he/she overwhelmed, uncertain, confused? How can I scaffold and support rather than judge

  1. Minimise extrinsic awards – it is probably impossible to parent entirely without the use of any external rewards – but do focus on the real internal rewards of satisfaction of mastery in challenging tasks that required hard work and effort.


Conversation Starter: Share stories of something hard you had to do, and how you overcame the challenges to mastery. No right or wrong stories here. 

(Remember that even if your child doesn’t respond or have a story to share – you sharing of your mind is important for them to observe in real life, dynamic experience sharing communication – to see your thinking process, your problem-solving strategies in practice, is very valuable).


Bring to mind someone who loves you or who has loved you. This can be a pet or a person. Notice how this feels in your body. Allow their presence to ebb and flow for three breaths.