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6 tips to instill a love of learning in your child

mother and little girl collecting leaves during fall

Key points:

  1. Mastery goal orientation is associated with positive qualities such as persistence, seeking out challenges, and a desire to learn, while performance goal orientation focuses on showing competence against others.
  2. Parents have a great influence on a child’s willingness to learn, and can promote a desire to learn by associating school learning to everyday life activities, offering various types of experiences, making the child feel competent, being excited about learning, focusing on learning instead of good grades, and shedding a positive light on failure.
  3. Providing a mastery-oriented environment, where concerns of outperforming others are small, can help maintain a mastery-oriented mindset in children.
  4. Competence is a key motivator for children, and parents should be careful with encouraging statements, focusing on the specific things the child has accomplished, and restoring confidence when children feel discouraged.

We all want to raise self-motivated children. Not only because it might lead to good grades in school, but because it’s an important factor for success later in life.

Helping children have a passion to develop their knowledge is a great virtue. When a child has a desire to learn, they understand more, remember the information for longer, and they are more persistent and eager to do challenging work! Ideally, we’d all want our kids to be that way: someone that focuses on learning, rather than grades; someone that looks to improve and not just prove they are smart; someone who enjoys the journey of learning.

Types of goal orientation

In general, there are two types of goal orientations that people adopt: mastery and performance. Mastery orientation centers on learning and improvement, while performance orientation focuses on showing competence against others. Psychologists have found that having a mastery orientation carries the most benefits. Some of its positive qualities include persistence, a desire to learn, and seeking out challenges to further improve.

Research by psychologist Paul O’Keefe, from Stanford University, shows that there are long-term effects to being exposed to a mastery-oriented environment. In his study, students who were exposed to an environment that emphasized learning for the sake of knowledge, where concerns of outperforming others were very small, maintained a mastery-oriented mindset 6 months later! These students were immersed in that environment for a summer program, but it goes to show that once a mastery goal orientation has been fostered and reinforced, patterns of motivation persist.

Promoting your child’s desire to learn

But how can children have this type of mindset ーone that focuses on high commitment and eagerness in learning, as well as being resilient when they fail? 

It turns out parents are the key; they have a great influence on a child’s willingness to learn. However, they don’t always know how to provide appropriate encouragement. Here are six strategies that cover some of these elements that can kickstart your little one’s desire to learn and succeed:

1. Associate school learning to everyday life activities

The more your child sees the connection between what they learn with what they experience in real life, the greater interest they will have in learning about the subject! You can start conversations, plan a trip, or relate the subject to familiar events or family members to associate the topic with daily life. For example, if your child is reading a book, try to ask them if the main character resembles anyone they know or if the story scenario is like a place you have visited before.

2. Offer various types of experiences

Family trips or even everyday errands can spike a child’s curiosity. Remember that exposing your child to diverse experiences can offer many learning opportunities and increase their desire to explore! A visit to the park, museum, hardware store, market, or the ocean can enhance what children learn in books and school.

If your child has trouble with a certain subject, just try to do simple and fun activities to get them interested in something related to that. For example, if it’s math that they are struggling with, you can cook together to teach them about measurements. Or if perhaps your child is not interested in a particular book, start a conversation about how it relates to their experiences or your family.

3. Make your child feel competent

Nothing motivates children (and adults!) more than a feeling of competence. A part of building competence is being careful with the encouraging statements you say to your child. We’ve talked about this in previous posts, but you should avoid praising your child’s intelligence or give them vague praises.

Try to acknowledge what they have accomplished and give them the chance to demonstrate what they have learned in the process. For instance, you can say, “You worked really hard on your drawing! I really liked how you organized the colors. Tell me more about what the colors mean”. Remember that when you are giving feedback, it’s best to be specific on what you liked and ask questions about it, that way your child will feel competent about the skills they’re acquiring!

An inevitable part of every learning journey is feeling discouraged. Children are bound to feel this way at one point or another, so what can you do in this situation? Remind your little one what they already know to restore their confidence, remind them that they’ve been able to successfully tackle similar tasks in the past, and that they can get through it. Additionally, avoid saying, “that’s easy” to encourage them. It has been proven to actually backfire and make people feel incompetent. When your child struggles with a task, acknowledge the difficulty and offer constructive suggestions to help.

4. Be excited about learning! The desire to learn is contagious, pass it on!

If your child is passionate about something, show enthusiasm and encourage them to explore more about the subject! An effective way to learn about different topics is through books, so it’s a good idea for you to develop a reading habit in your family. Remember that you are your child’s role model, so when you read books and magazines for pleasure, it sends out the message that reading is something fun! You can start reading to your children as early as their first few months; remember, the sooner the better. This activity is not only helpful for bonding, but it’s also an effective way to develop linguistic skills!

5. Focus on learning, rather than good grades

Unfortunately, society’s weight on testing does put a lot of unnecessary pressure and anxiety on children. You can decrease such worries by focusing on what they learned, rather than on their grades. For instance, ask your child to tell you more about a class project, rather than asking what grade they got on it. Additionally, avoid comparing your child to their friends, siblings, or peers –remember to focus on their progress.

6. Shed a positive light on failure

Like we mentioned in previous posts, look at failure as a learning opportunity. Give your child enough freedom to make choices, but let them know that you are there for them if they need help. Make sure to remind your child that people who don’t make mistakes are not learning anything new. Whenever your child fails at something, go over the task and try to figure out together where the mistake lies or what part they did not understand.


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