Home All Development of Self-Motivation: Why Pleasing Parents Too Much Can be Bad for Your Health

Development of Self-Motivation: Why Pleasing Parents Too Much Can be Bad for Your Health

written by Eleanor Chin 4 January 2009

Eleanor Chin, MAPP '08, is a life and executive coach. Founder and President of Clarity Partners Coaching and Consulting, she works with institutional and individual clients to support them as they navigate change, create inclusive and dynamic systems, and leverage strategic strengths for growth, learning and competitive advantage. Full bio.

Eleanor's past articles are here.

Adinkra Symbol for change

Human beings change. Young human beings need our support as they change. How can parents and other adults help children to grow and change in healthy directions?

The theme of change is in the air. The country needs so much change—our financial markets need an overhaul, our relationships around the world need some care and fence-mending, health care and education are still in need of serious revamping, and on and on. On the family level, parents of teenagers are thinking, “Mr. Obama, you have two pre-adolescent daughters. If you can tackle all these problems, can you change our teenagers? Can you get her to keep her room clean or him do his homework without so much prodding?”

Injecting Motivation: Does it Work?

It’s an age-old question about change that can rule the lives of parents as much as any national problem: if behavior is driven by motivation, how can we motivate our children to do what we know is best for them? Part of the answer is “We can’t.” Why? Because human motivation is driven partly by internal (intrinsic) and partly by external (extrinsic) factors. Parents are an extrinsic factor.

Here’s a small example to illuminate the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. When our daughter was 6, we signed her up for soccer. It seemed to be a good way to develop physical and mental agility as well as to make friends in the neighborhood. Somewhere between the ages of 6 and 12, soccer took on new meaning for us, her parents. We thought: if she continues with it, and gets better at it, it will give her a sense of fun and accomplishment–not to mention, a team sport that she can play in high school. We invested time and effort into making it fun. We didn’t want to notice that she didn’t seem to relish soccer practice.

Em at the Line

Then one day we drove by an indoor archery range and I watched as her head and body spun around like the girl in The Exorcist to read every word on the sign. “Are you interested in archery?” I said tentatively. “Oh yes!” she said without hesitation. The rest of the story is that she took up archery, competed at a national level, and continues to shoot archery in college, nine years later. Needless to say, she quit soccer immediately after taking up archery. She was playing soccer because we wanted her to. She shoots archery because she wants to.

What’s So Great About Intrinsic Motivation?

Self-motivation researchers Ryan and Deci say that intrinsic motivation is the internal driver for the deepest type of learning, curiosity, and exploration. It is our natural drive to be happy, interested and fulfilled and is therefore linked with a number of positive outcomes in children—including creativity, better task performance, and higher psychological well-being.

Think about this for ourselves. Don’t we do better when the task at hand is intrinsically motivating to us? My friend dislikes math, but when he wants to find money in the family budget for a fun family vacation, he dives right into running those numbers with gusto.

In the case of our daughter, we thought we knew what was best for her. And we did. There’s nothing wrong with wanting all the benefits of a team sport for your child. We just took the wrong route. As extrinsic motivators we were right about the goals and wrong about how to get there. In the end, noticing her interest in archery accomplished all that we had wanted soccer to accomplish. What’s more, she enjoyed it and needed less prodding to practice.

So intrinsic motivation is important to self-motivation, but too much of it makes us self-indulgent and not able to fit into society. That’s where extrinsic motivation comes into the picture.

Start with a cookie…

What’s So Bad About Extrinsic Motivation?

What is extrinsic motivation? As children grow and develop, they become more aware of their place in larger contexts—first family, then school, community, and workplace. Gradually, their actions become increasingly influenced by other people and their environment. Our children find themselves responding more and more to external triggers—rewards, deadlines, threats, directives and social pressures. Extrinsic motivators start with the offer of a cookie and go on to the threat of being downsized.

Also as we mature, our behavior is influenced first by intrinsic motivation, then extrinsic motivation. If we are motivated only by pleasing others, chasing money, or other external rewards, we are guided primarily by extrinsic factors. We are in danger of losing a sense of identity. What inspires us? What do we value? What’s our own path to success?

So we need extrinsic motivation to survive in the larger world and to temper our more self-centered excesses. But too much is not good for our health.

Integrating Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

We see that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are critical to wellbeing and successful maturation. Awareness of external influences is important to fitting into society. Awareness of what motivates us internally helps us to choose the activity or path where we are more likely to succeed. This integration of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is the challenge of parenting and living.

So what are parents to do when they want their children to make changes? How can we help them integrate the two types of motivation?

  • Remember that it’s a balance of what we see as the goal and finding the path the fits the child.
  • Listen, listen, listen. What are they telling you about what motivates them by their excitement? What de-motivates them by their lack of enthusiasm?
  • Observe, observe, observe. What does your child enjoy? What are their strengths?
  • Help your child to notice these for herself.
  • Encourage experimentation and learning from mistakes by viewing the missteps as information, rather than judging them.

Parents are the most influential adults in our children’s lives. We teach them as we are just living our lives—balancing our own social obligations and internal motivators. Make space for your passions and your children will learn to do the same.

This article is Part Two of Three-Part Series on Autonomy-Supportive Parenting by this author, to be continued next month. It follows Part One, Don’t Push the River.

Today from the author: This is a year for change. I believe that changing the world starts with intentional, informed and positive parenting. And I believe that all parents need support to do the hardest job in the world. After all, all we have to do is follow the advice of the immortal Yogi Berra: “When you see a fork in the road, take it.”



Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In Linley, P. A. & Joseph, S. (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice. pp. 105-124. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Deci, E.L. & Flaste, R. (1995). Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. New York: Penguin Books.

Erikson, E. (1963). Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton.

Grolnick, W.S. (2003). The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-meant Parenting Backfires Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.


The archer picture was taken by Eleanor Chin.
Cookie picture Photo by Pietro De Grandi on Unsplash

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tom 4 January 2009 - 9:44 am

This is a great article because I can relate to it. Just last month I was going through a tough time with my parents.

For the longest time I was just listening to what they wanted me to do and not speaking out for myself. i was afraid of speaking out.

One thing I learned after getting the courage to lay it out on the table for them is that they were truly loving parents, and it was me who with the lack of response was basically creating the problems.

What I mean by this is that I chose to stay quiet and not say anything back to them which made them mad and think of more crazy things to do.

And yes, if parents say they are doing it for your best interest, have they first asked us what we want?

Barry Elias 4 January 2009 - 3:40 pm

January 4, 2009

Dear Ms. Eleanor Chin:

Thank you for the January 4, 2009 article in Positive Psychology News Daily, reproduced below.

As a parent, it seems crucial to empower and guide the child without expectation.

Exposure to the extrinsic possibilities will enable them to make informed decisions that are intrinsically motivating.

Remaining available to process the experience with the child is another key ingredient.

Have a wonderful holiday season.

Barry Elias

Christine Duvivier 4 January 2009 - 3:57 pm

Eleanor, thank you for a wonderful contribution to the literature on parenting! I love your focus on intrinsic motivation — and I can personally relate (as I’m sure most parents can) to your story about soccer and archery.

You are so right: teens have a wonderful sense of what’s right for them. Thanks for your thoughtful insights!

Happy New Year,

Dave Shearon 4 January 2009 - 4:26 pm

Yeay,Eleanor — archery!! Allowing your kids to follow their interests can create new interests for you. Allowing my older son to follow his interest in shooting a bow and arrow led to coaching training for me by the current NAA president and five-time world team coach, a week at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs on the NAA’s tab, and the chance to take a group of kids from the Boys & Girls Club here in Nashville to both state and national tournaments — a goal I achieved and cherished! And I still shoot for recreation — my boys gave me a dozen arrows for Christmas! So, paying attention to your children’s intrinsic interests may be good for you as well as for them!

Eleanor Chin 5 January 2009 - 12:21 am

Thanks, Tom for sharing a fresh perspective from the other side of the parent/child relationship. Your points highlight the importance of two-way communication–not just between the parent and child, but between our inner and outer selves. In your example, it’s interesting how good intentions can hold us back when we act on our assumptions without checking them out. What’s the two-way conversation that you want to have with your parents as a result of your insights about intrinsic motivation? Your ability to self-reflect and be honest are strong qualities to bring to any conversation!

Eleanor Chin 5 January 2009 - 12:27 am

Barry, your point about “remaining available to process the experience” is an important one. I alluded to it in my fourth tip about helping your child to notice for him/herself, but you said it more clearly. What qualities do you think parents need to stay engaged in this way? Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

Eleanor Chin 5 January 2009 - 12:31 am

Christine, we are both adding to the literature on positive psychology and parenting in our own ways and it’s so needed, don’t you think? Your perspective as a parent and educator is so important to the dialogue and to me. Happy 2009!

Eleanor Chin 5 January 2009 - 12:40 am

Hi Dave! As a fellow archery parent, I can attest to the influence that our children’s interests can have on us if we are open to being influenced–particularly archery, because is a very democratic sport. You can do it at any age or ability. After all, we spend so many hours watching, why not participate? I have seen many parents continue shooting long after their child has lost interest! In the situation you mention, one thing that can be hard is separating your interest from your child’s. Any suggestions for how to do that effectively? I knew you would appreciate the archery reference. Thanks for weighing in with your unique perspective!

jd 5 January 2009 - 8:47 pm

More self-motivationa articles, please.

Eleanor Chin 6 January 2009 - 7:09 am

JD: So glad you find this topic useful and/or interesting. As you can tell, so do I and I’ll be happy to oblige. Anything in particular? Thanks, EC.

Kathryn Britton 6 January 2009 - 8:05 am

Eleanor and Christine,

Yes, some teens do have a wonderful sense of what’s right for them.

But some don’t – or maybe it’s that they don’t seem to.

Could you put in your article hoppers writing about what to do or not do or think or not think about teens who seem unmotivated in any direction? Are parents just not seeing what is there? Or is level of drive something that varies a great deal, and some kids are just less passionate about the future by nature? Could it be a reaction to having parents with high levels of drive? Or could it be a perception among those parents because they are comparing their present selves to their adolescent children?

Something to get your teeth into…


Christine Duvivier 7 January 2009 - 9:40 am

Hi Kathryn,

Great Question! My next article will begin to address your question on motivation (I hope). What I found is that kids who appeared to be unmotivated students were actually highly motivated in other situations– when it suited their gifts and interests or engaged them. Of course, there are probably some teens who feel so beaten-down by everything around them that they have trouble finding any sense of passion — but that may also be reflecting depression if they get to that point.

And while some kids are probably less passionate by nature, issues with self-motivation appear to arise when they are asked to shoe-horn themselves into molds that do not fit them (notice babies and toddlers– while some may be quieter or less active, they are all motivated to develop and learn in whatever ways they can find).

Huge topic that I’m not sure we can ever fully address but is interesting to explore. Thanks for starting the discussion!

Carlyn Carter 20 January 2009 - 2:36 pm

Thank you for such a readable and informative article. I’m sending this to my parents, to help them understand why my brother lacks motivation in the domains they had hoped he would have suceeded and why I have made some choices in my life that go against what they had expected of me. I’ve written both my master’s thesis and qualifying exams on motivation (achievement motivation and motivation to help others) but I could never get these ideas across to them as well as you have in this article. Can’t wait to read more from you.

Eleanor Chin 3 February 2009 - 11:59 pm

Hi Carlyn, Thanks so much for your compliments! I try to write these articles with parents of all ages in mind and it’s encouraging to hear that this one resonates with the researcher, daughter and sister in you. I will continue to write about positive approaches to parenting and look forward to more dialogue with you!

Eleanor Chin 4 February 2009 - 12:16 am

Kathryn, Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. You ask many great questions that probably many parents are asking themselves. I’m not an expert on developmental psychology, but I suspect that some of the answers to your questions may lie in any of the suggestions that Christine alludes to, and some can be found in the diverse rates of domain specific human development. We tend to talk primarily of teens, but I suspect that many people for many reasons don’t find themselves until much later in emerging adulthood, or even later. Hence, motivation may seem to be lacking, but maybe it just takes longer for many of us to find our niches or passions, for reasons that are beyond parental influence or pathology. In other words, while we tend to talk about normal development, there’s a vast range of outlying behavior that’s also within the range of normal. The key, I think is it relax, notice, and help the child or adult to find their own way, trusting that they will in their own manner and time. I will do some research on your questions and you may see something in future articles inspired by your inquiries. Thanks.

Partha Datta 12 January 2011 - 8:10 am



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