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A few years ago, our family visited Colonial Williamsburg. The interpreters there do a fabulous job of demonstrating and describing life in colonial times.

We learned a ton about daily life, including both work and play.

One of the games colonial children played involved a large wooden hoop and a small wooden stick. My children ran up and down an open field, pushing hoops with sticks to keep them rolling along.

And suddenly, I felt like I was witnessing a vivid - and exhausting - illustration of my parenting job. Some days it seems that if I don't perpetually run back and forth from child to child, nudging them to keep rolling, they'll fall flat and absolutely nothing will get done!

Would you rather listen?

We cover these same ideas in Episode 28 of the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast. Find it on your favorite podcast app or click here to go straight to the show notes.

The Importance of Internal Motivation

Dr. Scott Turansky says that systems of behavior modification - rewards and consequences - are like a Jell-O mold. They are temporary, external structures we put in place as our children's characters mature and "gel".

But they are not a long-term solution.

Even if we have rewards and consequences in place, we need to focus on helping our children to grow strong characters and develop their consciences so that when the mold is removed (or they outgrow it) their character will retain its shape.

Here are five important strategies.

1. Clear Expectations Stated with Firmness

The first step is to set clear expectations and maintain them with firmness. If we want to help our children grow in character to grow in internal motivation, the first step is to help them have a really clear idea of what it is we expect them to do, and a very clear understanding that these are instructions, not suggestions.

Remember when you were in middle school or high school and your science teacher had you do a science project?

I remember Mrs. Cobb teaching about independent variables and dependent variables. I always got confused about which was which, but I do remember that you were only supposed to make one change between each of the different sets in your experiment or else you wouldn't be able to tell which change was the one that made a difference in the results.

Well, getting to the heart issues behind a behavior struggle is a little bit like conducting a science experiment.

When you ask a child to complete a task and it doesn't happen, then there are all these questions floating around in your mind:

What if he didn't understand what he was supposed to do?

What if she didn't know I meant for her to do it right now?

What if he thought it was just a suggestion?

What if she thought I was talking to someone else?

Making sure your instructions are clear and firm eliminates many of the variables from your heart investigation. Here are just a few quick tips for what that looks like. 

Model Expectations (Probably More Than Once)

One of the most important ways to make expectations clear is to model them yourself. Show them what a clean bedroom looks like - point out different parts of the task like surfaces, under the bed, hanging up clothes, etc.

Have them watch as you clean a bathroom and talk about the problem spots that often get overlooked. Give them a checklist or task cards so they are clear on what is expected.

Firmness (not Harshness) is Key

We need to give instructions firmly but without harshness. This distinction can be tricky because we often feel like we're being mean or angry when we speak with firmness. But we do our children a disservice when we aren't clear that this is an instruction. A firm tone of voice communicates effectively, and that's loving!

I also want you to think about for a moment about how harshness and anger can actually undermine the internal motivation that we're going for. When we use harshness, when we yell at our children, when we lose our temper, what we are training them is that they don't have to take our instructions seriously or pay attention until we flip our lids. 

2. Paint a Mental Picture of Character Growth

The second important step towards internal motivation is to help your children picture what character growth will look like and the benefits that accompany it. You're painting a mental picture for them about what it could look like to grow and change and mature in this area.

Here are two examples for two different kinds of character traits that you might help them to picture.

Painting a Picture of Responsibility

One is responsibility. The concept of "responsibility" can be pretty nebulous for a child. But you might explain it like this:

"You know, when you're able to demonstrate responsibility, then you'll be able to do a job on your own without mommy hovering over you or giving you as many reminders. You'll be able to keep yourself on task and you won't need someone else managing you.

This is going to be a big blessing to the family because it will free up mommy or whoever might need to be supervising you to do other things or to help other children."

Responsibility means that your child will have a little bit more freedom and flexibility. Maybe you would allow your child to choose the order in which he completes his tasks if he demonstrates that he is able to stay on track and get them all done.

That's what it would look like to grow in responsibility.

Painting a Picture of Integrity

What would it look like to pain a mental picture of growing in integrity? You might explain to your child,

"You know, as you build integrity, mom and dad will naturally trust you more. We'll be able to allow you more privacy and independence. When there's a question of circumstances, we'll naturally be able to extend the benefit of the doubt because of your good character in this area."

Responsibility + Integrity Leads to Opportunity 

Let me give you an example of what this looks like. Recently my oldest son had the opportunity to help someone with some work and to earn some money, but it was on a school day.

He asked permission to do some of his school work ahead of time and to do the rest after he got back or on the next day. He said, "I think I've shown that you can trust me to get my schoolwork done."

And you know what? He was exactly right. He had built up that capital in the bank of both integrity and responsibility so that when he asked me to extend some extra flexibility, I didn't hesitate. And on top of that, he continued to build on that integrity by following up with those school assignments as promised.

Building Internal Motivation in Your Kids Workshop

Do you ever feel like you burn a lot of calories running around behind your kids to get them to keep up with their responsibilities? Wonder if they’d do anything at all if you don’t remind them? Purchase this workshop to learn …

  • The two reasons people change
  • How to make sure your instructions are clear (plus a quiz for you!)
  • Three ways to help your child catch the vision for character change
  • Four jobs of the conscience (and how to train it)
  • The three levels of thinking we want to develop in our children
  • The three-step process to build responsibility

You'll have access to the video replay, downloadable workbook, and the workshop transcript!

3. Build Internal Motivation with Prayer and Scripture

You might be surprised that this strategy is third in the list. It isn't third because it's the third in importance. It's third, because it's really helpful to begin with the other two steps.

Once you know how to set clear expectations and pain a picture of character growth, this step will be essential for laying a strong foundation for heart work!

I'm sure you already read the Bible with your children and pray with and for them. So in a sense, this isn't something new in your home. But I want you to consider specifically how to use prayer and Scripture to build internal motivation and character growth.

Strengthening Character with Scripture

When we think about using Scripture to focus on certain aspects of character, our go-to strategy is often to find verses or Bible stories that talk about the virtue or vice we want to address.

We teach them to memorize the Proverbs about controlling their tongue. We find positive examples of godly character traits or stories that illustrate what the negative impact would be of those corresponding character flaws.

But I want to encourage you not to stop there.

How often do you go to scripture to remind your children of the power of Christ at work in and for them? How often do you remind your children that we have a great high priest who is in the presence of our father making continual intercession for us at the throne of grace? How often do you read to them about how the death of Christ defeated the power of sin, which no longer has a hold over them?

So using scripture to encourage internal motivation is not simply about pointing out character qualities that we want them to have. It's also about reminding them of what it means to be in Christ.

Strengthening Character with Prayer

When we pray with our children or encourage them to pray about their particular areas of struggle and growth, we're doing a few things.

First of all, the very act of prayer reminds them where their help comes from.  It isn't in their own strength that they will achieve heart change, but it's from the Lord.

Also when we pray specifically about heart change and then we're able to see that change taking place we can rejoice in the fruit that the Lord is working in their hearts and in their lives. Or maybe they don't notice it on their own, but you're able to point it out as a means of encouragement!

You can even teach your children how to use the scripture as a tool for prayer. If they don't know what to pray or I don't know how to pray about character growth, help them to read the Bible and then use the passage as a springboard to formulate a prayer.

"Lord, you say in your word that patience is one of the fruits of the spirit. I pray that your Spirit would work patience in me and that I would see that evidence and be encouraged to keep depending on you for growth." 

"Lord you say that you're making me more and more like Christ. Please show me what you need me to see to be more like Christ and also show me ways you're already doing that in my heart."

These prayers don't have to be complicated. And God loves when we repeat his words back to him, because it shows that we believe it to be true!

4. A Part of Something Bigger

Another really key aspect of internal motivation is to help our children see that they are part of something bigger than themselves. As adults, when we think about being a part of something bigger than ourselves, we might be thinking about kingdom of God, or our country, or our community. And this is true.

But those can be really big intangible ideas for younger children to grasp. However, they definitely can understand the idea of being a part of a family and helping out around the home.

The Seesaw of Family Life

I want to tell you about a very specific illustration, a mental image that we use to help our children understand that they are a part of a family and how their behavior impacts the family. We use the analogy of a seesaw

The left side of the seesaw is the "needing help" side. The right side of the seesaw is the "giving help" side.

Little babies are all the way on the left hand end. They aren't able to give any help and they need us to do absolutely everything for them. That's okay; that's how God made them. And even though they can't give any physical help, they're a great joy and a blessing to the family.

But as we grow older and our bodies get bigger and stronger, as we learn new skills we slowly move from the needing help side to the giving help side.  This helps our children to see how their service affects the whole balance of the family!

Weighing in on Other Families

But the seesaw analogy isn't only useful in showing our children how they contribute to the family. We can use this illustration to give them a vision for helping outside the family, too.

When someone in the family is sick, they might move from the "giving help" side to the "needing help" side. And if that someone is mom or dad, that might be shift in the family balance.

Maybe that means that some of the big kids have to move a little more to the right. Or maybe this is an opportunity for someone from outside the family, maybe grandma, maybe a friend from church to come in temporarily to be on the "giving help" side.

When we talk about people coming in from the outside to help to balance our family seesaw, then we can transition to the conversation to talk about how our family can help others.

You can explain to your children that as your family moves more and more from the "needing help" side to the "giving help" side, the more we have extra to share with other families who need help!

5. Allowing Space for Character and Conscience Growth

The final important step in helping your children to build internal motivation. Is to just take a step back and allow enough space for their characters and their consciences to grow.

Oftentimes we remind our children of every single thing they need to do, every single task they need to complete. We actually discourage their own character growth and we don't allow them the space to develop their own self-discipline because we are there conferences.

So, what does it look like to step back a bit?

When our children are little, we have to be right at their elbow, reminding them of each step of each aspect of a task that we want them to accomplish. But as they get older, we need to learn how to leave more space for them to remember and follow through on their own

And yes, that might mean that there are some failures. They don't remember all the things that they need to do. But even those failures can help to illustrate the areas where growth is needed. They can begin to see what it would look like for them to have responsibility or integrity in those areas.

Think about stepping back like a gradual stretching. We don't just dump our kids and leave them to flounder way outside the zone of their current ability. But we also don't want to hinder their growth by continuing to limit our expectations.

Practical Ideas for Stretching Personal Responsibility

How long can your child stay on track without direct supervision?

Set a timer and keep watch surreptitiously. Help your child to build stamina to keep working even when you aren't in the room. If they can do it for three minutes today, tomorrow, try for five minutes.

How many tasks can they remember in a row without getting off track?

Create a checklist or, for a younger child, visual task cards for a certain part of their day, like their morning or bedtime routine. Instead of nagging about individual chores, you can remind them to look at their checklist or task cards.

Assess where your children are and stretch just a little bit beyond that. Give them a little bit more space and like I said, yes, there will be failures, but there also will be growth and success. And you'll be able to celebrate that, giving them hope to keep going and growing!

Dig Deeper into Internal Motivation

Did this article spark some ideas but you'd like to dig deeper? Good news - we've got an entire workshop on "Building Internal Motivation in Your Kids".

Building Internal Motivation in Your Kids Workshop

Do you ever feel like you burn a lot of calories running around behind your kids to get them to keep up with their responsibilities? Wonder if they’d do anything at all if you don’t remind them?

Purchase this workshop to learn …

  • The two reasons people change
  • How to make sure your instructions are clear (plus a quiz for you!)
  • Three ways to help your child catch the vision for character change
  • Four jobs of the conscience (and how to train it)
  • The three levels of thinking we want to develop in our children
  • The three-step process to build responsibility

You'll have access to the video replay, downloadable workbook, and the workshop transcript!

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Lynna Sutherland is the mother of eight kids ages teen to toddler. She hosts the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast and writes about sibling conflict resolution and sibling relationship building. Lynna believes that the gospel transforms sibling conflict from an obstacle to an opportunity and loves to show other parents the freedom and confidence of gospel-centered parenting.