How to Motivate a Child to Do Their Best

Dr. Bob Barnes and Torrey Roberts, Sheridan House Family Ministries

More times than I can count I have heard a frustrated parent say, “I know my child can do better, but he just doesn’t seem to try!” Parents want to know the answer to the same question: How do you motivate a child to do their best?

There are a few questions parents need to answer before they work on motivating the child. As a parent, what is my motivation for motivating my child? Do I want my child to do his best for me (the parent’s self-esteem) or for his self-esteem? Am I interested in seeing great effort or a report card with all A’s? To get to the point, “Who is this really for?”

Some children are already doing their best. There are times in a child’s life when effort has gone out the door, and the child doesn’t know where to begin as far as “trying” is concerned. He knows he is disappointing his parents, but he just can’t jumpstart the will to try.


What changed?

Start by taking a look at the circumstances surrounding the child. Has anything recently changed in the child or family’s life? Look for any change in the child’s life that might cause them to express their pain by shutting down.

Other times the child just doesn’t understand the material he is supposed to master. It’s not that he can’t. He’s just behind. He feels he is in such a hole that it’s a waste of time trying. This would be a typical response for a child halfway through a grading period and so far behind that he feels he can never climb out of the hole.  


Motivational tools

motivateIf you want to properly motivate your child, you must start with the proper motivator. First, let’s look at poor motivational tools.  Yelling and screaming is never a good long-term motivator. Cheering from the sidelines is different from yelling at a child because of mistakes. Nothing motivates like encouragement. Nothing puts a child in a hole to avoid further pain than ridicule or guilt. Everyone needs a fan who believes in them. If you believe in me, I will risk trying. If I sense you are going to ridicule my failure, it’s not worth trying.

Monetary rewards for reaching a desired goal may work short-term. A person who learns to perform only for tangible rewards will quickly want more. Giving your child dollars for A’s can’t be the long-term motivator. A child is motivated by questing for a different reward.

The child has to learn to do their best in whatever they attempt. First, the child should be motivated by the parent/child relationship. Taking that first step as a toddler, the child learns that making the effort is exciting because Mom and Dad cheer them on. The child learns that he or she doesn’t have to make an “A” on their first attempts to walk… he just has to try. Perfection is not the goal. 



The second step in motivation is when the child gets to the point of motivating themselves. They are so confident in their parents’ love that they begin to motivate themselves to try harder or try new things. Hence you see the toddler trying to walk even when they don’t know you are watching. They are self-motivating and as you learn about it, you are still cheering their effort.

The final step is for the child to link his effort to try his best at everything because of his faith in God. In Genesis Chapter 39, when the boss’s wife repeatedly said to Joseph, “come to bed with me,” Joseph made the incredible effort to do the right thing by running from her. His motive was a relationship. His answer to her, “How could I do such a thing and sin against God?” (Genesis 39). 


Motivating a child takes time to build a relationship with the child. Let them know they are more than grades on a report card or performance on a soccer field. Let them know there is nothing they can do to lose your love and then train them that God loves them and has a plan for them. 


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