Do what comes naturally to help your child find inner drive

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Self-motivation is the holy grail of parenting. When you have successfully cultivated your child’s inner drive, you can sit back knowing that you’ve given him or her the one thing they will need to thrive in our fast-changing society. You’ve also provided them with the key to happiness; when we are truly self-motivated, we are driven to seek out the connections that bring us joy and solve problems standing in our way.

Unfortunately, many parents today are sabotaging their children’s inner drive. Indeed, despite being the most educated group of parents to walk the earth, our children stand a higher chance than ever of developing anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes and addiction.

I come face to face with families from all ethnic groups and social classes, and I’ve seen the results of every parenting style in the parental animal kingdom. I’ve also delved deeply into the science of motivation, exploring how our biology naturally motivates us towards health, happiness and success – if we allow it. From this and my personal experience as a mother of three, it’s clear we need a new, more effective parenting model.

Two prevalent parenting models today are the Tiger parent and the Jellyfish parent, and both do little to promote a child’s self-motivation.

First, the Tiger parent. Whether it is the Amy Chua-like parent pushing piano lessons, the Helicopter parent hovering over homework, or the Snow Plough parent shoving all the obstacles out of the way – all of these “take over” styles promote an environment of external control and thereby diminish a child’s sense of internal control.

Children of authoritarian parents often become externally driven by praise, fear or rewards and thus fail to develop self-motivation. Even though these children may sometimes appear more “successful”, without a solid sense of internal control and self-motivation, their problem-solving skills and ability to think creatively suffers.

Second, the Jellyfish parent. These parents have few rules and expectations and “give in” to avoid confrontation. Children of Jellyfish parents lack guidance, fail to develop vital impulse control and often channel self-motivation in the wrong direction, leading to unhealthy risk-taking behaviour. They also have poorer social and academic performance.

What, then, is the solution? The key is to remember how natural parenting is. Before parenting guides and webinars ruled the day, parents relied on their intuition.

Humans are naturally motivated through the biologic release of the powerful neurochemical dopamine. The human brain’s positive motivation feedback loop works like this: do something good for your survival, receive a positive reward via your dopamine pathways, experience well-being, gain the self-motivation to do something good for your survival again.

This means that the key to well-being lies in identifying our intrinsic motivators and nurturing them in our children. Some are very obvious, such as sleep, yet I am constantly telling parents that their “unmotivated” child is actually just sleep-deprived. Other intrinsic motivators like play, exploration, social bonding and altruism may be less obvious but also bring us that sense of well-being through dopamine activation.

We are hardwired towards these activities because they allow us to become comfortable with uncertainty, take risks, exchange ideas, solve problems and innovate. These powerful, but often overlooked, motivators provide essential “cognitive flexibility” and social support, the key ingredients for the one trait irrefutably required for lifelong success – the ability to adapt.

To revisit the animal kingdom analogy, the animal that best demonstrates these same qualities and motivators is the dolphin.

As soon as a dolphin is born, its mother gently nudges the newborn towards the surface to take its first critical breath of air while role-modelling swimming motions. The dolphin mother remains close, providing help when needed, but is never overbearing – sending the message of both connection and self-reliance.

In addition to developing a strong bond with their young, dolphins are very connected to their pod – and all spend plenty of time playing, exploring, collaborating, sleeping and exercising. In essence, dolphins have a balanced lifestyle and exhibit a balanced authoritative (not authoritarian) parent-child relationship.

We humans are capable and motivated to be great parents. We just need to balance taking over our kids’ lives with providing them guidance and direction. We need to stop overscheduling and overprotecting them.

Only then will we cultivate our children’s self-motivation and give them the time and space to activate their own powerful intrinsic motivators. Indeed, we must step back and realise that Mother Nature is a parent’s best ally.

Dr Shimi Kang is the medical director for child and youth mental health in Vancouver and the author of The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into A Tiger

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