Well-meaning parents can say, “Just do the algebra – it’s good for you!” in the same way they might command a kid to eat vegetables or brush their teeth. But there’s nothing biological or inherently beneficial about getting an “A” or making the honor roll. They’re placemarkers for learning – and pretty poor ones, at that.

Is this going to be on the test?
When am I ever going to use this in the real world?

The classic classroom laments reveal a lot about what motivates students. When learning is fun, these questions don’t come up. But when boredom and resistance are running high, students get goal-oriented. If I’m going to suffer through this, there better be a point.

Schools aren’t designed to foster a love of learning. We fill classrooms with substitutes for intrinsic motivation: letter grades, gold stars, report cards, honor rolls, and parents’ approval. Parents and teachers seem to take for granted that kids can’t be inspired to enjoy learning for its own sake. Instead, we devise a system of bribes and meaningless proxies. Motivation and inspiration aren’t kindled – and are often actively stamped out.

When kids aren’t excited by the symbolic rewards, we label them unmotivated. But often they just don’t see the point.

If you ask kids why they’re excited about learning, you don’t hear about the bribes and proxies. You hear about the goals:

  • I want to build rockets.
  • I want to be rich.
  • I want to write novels.
  • I want to end hunger.

Kids aren’t pre- or future-human beings. They’re fully human, right now. Humans are driven by what interests us. We find the motivation to learn quickly and improve ourselves when we are working toward our own goals – not someone else’s.

A coach at GT School was talking with a 13-year-old who was resistant to the math workshop his parents had chosen for him. GT School has a number of other workshops (critical thinking, statistics, investments), so the coach decided to offer scrapping the math workshop and focusing on something else. When asked about his interests, the student perked up. “Can you help me get rich?”

With an intrinsic motivator discovered, the coach started mapping out a path to get there. Within minutes, they’d identified business school as a core goal on the path to wealth, and the student understood SAT scores would play a big part in getting him there. By the end of a half hour, the student enthusiastically accepted a rigorous math curriculum designed to raise the math score on his SATs. The kid who didn’t want to take a math workshop was suddenly on board – because he saw the bridge between the unpleasant effort to the (very pleasant) reward.

Perhaps high SAT scores, like business school admission and high earnings, are just other kinds of proxy markers. But because the kid chose for himself what his goal was – and hadn’t had it dictated to him by parents or teachers or administrators – he was able to see how short-term endurance of a subject he didn’t find engaging could bring long-term success. That was enough to sell him on the hard work.

Kids already want to do things

We don’t need to ask kids – as friendly adults so often do – “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Kids are already something now. And they want to be something more, now.

Kids shouldn’t need to wait for proxies or permissions before engaging in work that brings meaning. Young historians can trace family trees and research the history of a building nearby. The young nurse can plan a group activity for a local nursing home. A chemist can be given an ice cream maker, by which to experiment with emulsifiers and exothermic reactions. The structural engineer could design a simple footbridge in a local park, the way scouts often do.

Of course, allowing kids to choose meaningful activities along their chosen path isn’t a sure or straight path to fulfillment. Once involved in age-appropriate activities in their chosen fields, some young people will find the job is not what they imagined. Perhaps they’ll leave an automotive apprenticeship with less enthusiasm for cars. Maybe the young kitchen apprentice discovers that the long hours and grueling pace kill his love for food, and he might prefer to be a private chef. Perhaps the young novelist will become frustrated and lonely, and realize that working on a creative team suits her better.

While the disappointment might be hard for parents to watch, it will save them years of time and money that would otherwise be invested in coursework, college, and lost opportunity, only for their 20-something child to recognize the same mismatch they could have realized at 16.

On the other hand, a brief, age-appropriate exposure to a passion very often inspires a new appetite for learning. A kid might emerge from robotics camp ravenous for a coding course. A space-lover may discover physics is the coin of his rocket realm, and enroll in AP classes. The adult doesn’t have to “make learning fun;” the fun is in chasing the passion.
Traditional, one-size-fits-all schooling offers parents a ready-made set of carrots and sticks with which to badger their young people. School is infected with inflexible, artificial, meaningless motivators.

I don’t care if you don’t like math. You need a B to make honor roll, so do your worksheets.

You may not need to know chemical nomenclature in real life – but you will for the test on Friday.

The safety of these incentive structures provides a default mode for parents. Well-meaning parents can say, “Just do the algebra – it’s good for you!” in the same way they might command a kid to eat vegetables or brush their teeth. But there’s nothing biological or inherently beneficial about getting an “A” or making the honor roll. They’re placemarkers for learning – and pretty poor ones, at that.

Because engagement, retention, and development are difficult to measure, especially in bulk, schools flatten that complexity into GPA or class rank. Whether those simple metrics really measure student growth is, to most families, beside the point. Because success has been conscribed so narrowly, the actual intellectual growth of young people becomes irrelevant.

Following the crowd sometimes means less fear (and less up-front work) for parents. There’s a comfort in putting your kid on a predefined path and saying, “just play the game, whether you like it or not.” That is, after all, how most of us were raised.

But there is another way.

You can help kids unlock their passions

Adhering to the generic path promises generic success. But there isn’t a single generic kid out there, anywhere. Kids – their likes, their goals, their struggles – are spectacularly specific.

Help the young people in your life identify their passions: the deep, hot, bright flames. Ask. Listen. Reflect back with questions. Do your best not to influence their desires with your own. Especially for littler learners, resist the urge to stifle them with advice like, “you’ll never make a living doing that,” or “that’s grown-up work.” Don’t assume you know what they value, or where they’ll end up.

Connect to what they’re communicating to you. If your kid wants to be a doctor, hands-on training might feel totally impractical: don’t you need 12 years of school and a state license for that? But for every dream job, there are dozens of supporting roles and tasks that can be done by a confident, competent kid.

Research your kids’ passions, and ask your community for help. Adults who love what they do are often eager to share that expertise with a young person. They may be able to recommend developmental tasks and related pursuits that kids find meaningful. Let the passion do the work of motivation – you focus on providing the richest set of opportunities and tools.

Work backwards from your kid’s goals to “schoolish” pursuits. Start with what your child wants to accomplish, and identify educational tasks and tools that move them forward toward that goal. Get as granular as you can, to help the young mind draw connections from the inner world to the external learning.

If you want to build a rocket that can really go to space, you might want to work for a big lab that has a team and resources to build that. Those jobs require a degree from a good aerospace engineering school. Let’s look up the prerequisites for those programs. It looks like they want coursework in physics, advanced math, computer programming, and computer languages. Which of those do you think we could start with?

Okay, let’s learn some programming. Now, it looks like we can try a coding class on Outschool, or TreeHouse, or Coda kid. Hmm. There are lots of choices about which language to start with, and I don’t know much about this. Who do we know that could help you decide? Uncle Charlie does programming for his work, I think. Let’s call him with some questions. Even if you start with Java or Python and end up warning something else, learning how to learn a coding language will be a great start toward your rocket-building goals.


You want to be a writer. That’s really cool. What kinds of things do you want to write? Are we reading some of those things every day? Who do we know that writes for their job? Mrs. Zimakas at the YMCA puts out a newsletter every Monday. Would you like to talk to her about how she does that? She might even be glad for your help.
I know you’re excited about writing novels: what kind of story do you think you might tell? Okay, let’s make sure we pick up some fantasy novels while we’re at the library.
Let’s also check the library for books about writing. Maybe one of your favorite novelists has written a book about her writing process, or some prompts you could try.

We might even find a community writing group to help encourage you. Is it exciting or scary to show what you’ve written to other people? That makes sense – maybe we could look for an online course in grammar and proofreading?

True motivation binds autonomy, mastery, and purpose

Author Daniel Pink mined decades of research on human motivation, and proposed a model consisting of three elements — autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Human beings are happy to work hard, persevere through obstacles, and challenge ourselves, when we find those three elements aligned.

Young people want autonomy: to decide what to learn rather than being force fed whatever is next on a generic curriculum. Young people want mastery: the chance to dig into skillsets that interest them, and develop true understanding, not just cursory recall and regurgitation. Young people want purpose: the sense that hard work results in more than just a proxy prize, by moving them closer to something they, specifically, value. The more you can help them find that purpose, the more they’ll thrive.

Build an educational experience around your child’s goals, and you’ll have little need for the carrots and sticks of the traditional school system. This kind of learning welcomes authentic engagement – the kind that lasts a lifetime, and well past graduation – and sets them up for real-world success by teaching them how to independently learn the things they’re excited about. Encouraging practical engagement with networks, environments, and skills related directly to their passions will signal that you’re invested in what matters to them. Your relationship, and their education, can be transformed by that kind of trust. Find out what genuinely fuels your kid – and then feed it.

Laura Williams

Laura Williams

Laura Williams is a communication strategist, writer, educator, and mom to a self-directed learner based in Atlanta, GA. She is a passionate advocate for critical thinking, individual liberties, and the Oxford Comma.

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