Motivated Minds

Raising Children to Love Learning

Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., and Kathy Seal

Holt Paperbacks


Have you ever said anything like this to your child?
"I know you're in the middle of building your block castle, but you'll just have to leave it for now and finish when we get back from the store."


"Will you please get off the Internet so someone else in this house can use the phone? I don't care if you haven't read everything there is on the Web about polar bears."

If comments like these sound familiar, it means you've seen your child intensely absorbed in work that demands brainpower. It means you've witnessed self-motivation up close and your child shows signs of loving learning.

Perhaps, however, your home sounds more like this one:

MOM: Jason, please get to your homework.
(A half-hour passes.)

DAD: Jason, have you started yet? It looks to me like all you're doing is staring into space.

(Fifteen minutes later. )

MOM (voice rising): Jason, stop fiddling around right now. It's almost bedtime and you've barely started your homework! If you want to go to the basketball game Saturday, you better start studying, and I mean now!

(Jason slams his bedroom door angrily and plays a Rage Against the Machine CD at maximum volume. Mom sinks to the couch, demoralized. Dad turns on Jeopardy.)

MOM (wailing): How long can this go on? I hate fighting every night.

DAD: Me too. I'm starting to dread coming home.

Every child is born with a desire to learn. Indeed, most children enter kindergarten excited about learning to read and write, and eager to know about the world around them.

Yet by the time they reach middle school (and often before), many of our children are like Jason. They look on learning as drudgery, not the exciting opportunity that propelled them when they were little. The idea that learning can be fun all but disappears -- as illustrated by a boy who thanked me for my gift of Tom Sawyer, then added, "I'll read it later. I already did my book report for this semester."

f0So if you've noticed a lack of motivation in your child, you're not alone: research has shown that American children's love of learning declines steadily from third through ninth, grade.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Over the past thirty years, psychologists have conducted hundreds of studies that show what makes children want to learn. Their research tells us how to raise a child who is interested in academic work and even finds pleasure and joy in learning. It shows us how to raise children who seek intellectual challenges, and who plow on confidently even when the going gets tough.

I am going to show you how to raise just such an enthusiastic, lifelong learner, but first we have to move beyond some ideas that research has shown are, misguided.

For the past several decades, parents have been told that the best way to encourage kids to learn is to puff up their self-esteem by piling on rewards and praise. Grades and prizes have been considered the most effective tools for motivating children to study.

But psychologists have shown that raising eager learners is not simply a matter of making children "feel good." Indeed, the research I am going to share with you reveals how such a strategy can do damage.

What we have learned, instead, is that we need to raise children who feel competent, autonomous, and secure in their relationships to others. Kids will be self-motivated to learn when they feel capable and skilled, and confident of becoming more so; when they have some choice and control over their learning; and when they feel loved, supported, and respected by their parents. Children who love learning also believe that intelligence isn't fixed and inborn, but that they can get smarter by working hard.

I will show you how to nurture in your child these four essential components of loving learning. We will also examine why children learn so well through play, and how to encourage your child's natural drive toward competence.

Although this book focuses on children from babyhood through elementary school, its general principles and recommendations apply to children of all ages, and even to adults. Everyone can follow the self-motivation model you will read about in upcoming chapters: the cycle of working hard, persisting to overcome obstacles, and being energized to do more by the feelings of pleasure brought by newly gained confidence.

But maybe the notion of your child loving learning sounds to you like an impossible dream. Perhaps, like Jason's parents, you'd be satisfied if your child would simply take charge of his own homework. So, while we'll strive together for the ideal -- a p0genuine love of learning -- I am also going to show you how to raise a child who studies on his own, without monitoring, nagging, or threats of punishment.

Along the way, you will learn how to solve many of the common problems that children have with their schoolwork. I will show you how to prepare your young child to succeed in school, how to build your child's self-confidence and strengthen her persistence in the face of challenging work, and how to lessen her performance anxiety so she can concentrate on learning. Together we will raze the barriers to your child succeeding in school and enjoying learning.

Learning Better and Enjoying It More

But should you bother? What does it matter if your child enjoys learning, as long as she does her schoolwork?

It matters a lot. Researchers have shown decisively that when children study because, they enjoy it, their learning is deeper, richer, and longer lasting. They are also more persistent, more creative, and more eager to do challenging work. There's an emotional payoff too: kids who want to learn feel less anxious and resentful than students coerced by bribes or threats, while achieving just as much or more.

"But I Want My Child to Score Well on Tests and Go to a Good College!"

You are probably also concerned about ensuring your child's success in the real world of report cards, standardized tests, and competitive admissions. The good news may seem paradoxical: research has shown that the indirect strategy of helping your child enjoy learning and see its value is the best way to improve your child's grades and raise her test scores.

This indirect strategy will also help you protect your child from the steep emotional price of the pressure to perform, which is mounting steadily today as tests take center stage in the politicized drive to improve our public schools. I'm going to help you cope with these testing demands while protecting your child from nail-biting anxiety and the emotional "turnoff" that are sure to follow if tests take precedence over learning.

The Good-Enough Parent

You'll find lots of practical suggestions in this book. But I don't expect you to follow them perfectly, for several reasons.

The first reason is illustrated by a well-intentioned book I once read. I don't remember the problem the book addressed, but I do remember throwing it down in disgust when it suggested that I talk like this to my children: "I'm wondering if your lost homework papers are your way of letting us know how you feel about us limiting your TV time?"

This is not that kind of book. I'm a working parent, perhaps like you. Many nights I'm too tired or preoccupied to be the sweet and patient Perfect Mother. Nor do I have all day to read Treasure Island to my son, write a three-act play based on the novel, and then sew costumes so we can act it out together. It's okay that I'm not perfect, and it's okay for you too. You don't have to be a licensed therapist, a millionaire with a household staff of twenty, or a Ph.D. / M.D./ M.B.A. to nurture your child's desire to learn. As the eminent British psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott used to say, kids don't need perfect parents. It's fine for you to be a "good-enough mother" (or father), who is "there" faithfully for your child and does what you can. No one can do more.

Furthermore, I may make a suggestion that you know for certain would not work with your child, perhaps because of her temperament. Or perhaps my strategy simply doesn't feel comfortable to you. This doesn't mean you are wrong, or that the research is mistaken. It simply means you need to adapt my suggestions to your own family. That's why parenting is more an art than a science. My advice provides solid guidelines, but you'll have to experiment to see what feels right and works best for you and your child.

Also, don't let the many strategies I suggest overwhelm you. If you can absorb the theme of this book and make its spirit your own, if you can follow a few of its tips, and if, above all, you let your child know that you value learning highly, that will be good enough. You'll give your family a healthy learning environment, and your child will stand a great chance of loving learning.

Raising children who want to learn is not a utopian dream or an unaffordable luxury. It's something every parent can achieve. It's also a key to improving American education, one that has been lost in our panic to increase achievement test scores. Imagine what it would be like if the majority of our children wanted to learn, plain and simple. Imagine if school-age kids enjoyed the expansion of their skills and knowledge the same way they enjoyed learning to recognize new letters, count to ten, ride a bike, or swim. They would be unstoppable, and our national quest to improve education would be infinitely easier.

So for your child's sake, and the nation's sake -- read on.

*End notes have been omitted

Copyright © 2001 Deborah Stipek and Kathy Seal