Raising an academically motivated child

Children who are motivated on their own to do well in school is a dream of almost every parent. Fortunately, whether a child is intrinsically motivated to do well academically is not purely genetic or based on socioeconomic factors. This means that parents can purposefully contribute to the development of academic intrinsic motivation, or AIM for short, despite not having the highest IQ themselves or extra money to spend.
First of all, high academic motivation and intellectual giftedness aren’t the same thing, but they are related (read about it here). AIM refers to a drive to learn and do activities for their own sake. The reward is simply the pleasure that comes from learning, gaining mastery of the task at hand, and being challenged. On the other hand, being intellectually gifted usually refers to those who are smarter than average, measured by an IQ of 130 or above. It’s easy to see the possible connection between AIM and being smart: acting upon a greater desire to learn might lead to an IQ increase, although maybe not always to genius levels.

How can AIM be fostered? As part of the Fullerton Longitudinal Study, Gottfried and colleagues examined the influence of socioeconomic status and home environment factors on the levels of AIM in children from ages 8-13. You can read the paper here. (Here’s a later paper showing that AIM becomes increasingly stable throughout adolescence, so the factors that go into the development of AIM have long-term significance.) This study is notable because of the low attrition rate of their participants over the years and also because of the comprehensiveness of the measures taken.

At age 8, data was collected about the socioeconomic status of each child’s family, including information about parental education, professions, and marital status. These 96 families represented a wide range of socioeconomic status, from white collar professionals to semi-skilled workers. Additionally, information on the home environment was collected to determine how cognitively stimulating it was, which included information on the amount of parental involvement and educational opportunities.

Here are some specific examples of observations taken or questions asked to determine the level of cognitive stimulation:

  • Does the parent arrange for the child to visit the library at least once a month?
  • Is the child encouraged to have hobbies?
  • Is the TV often left on, or is it watched judiciously?
  • Does anyone in the family like art, literature, and/or music?
  • Does the child have access to a computer at home?
  • Does the child have access to at least two pieces of playground equipment?
  • How much education does the parent expect their child to receive?

AIM was measured by examining factors such as the child’s persistence, curiosity, enjoyment of learning, and desire for skill mastery in different academic subjects, including math, reading, and science.

The authors found that even while controlling for socioeconomic status, the children’s AIM levels at ages 9, 10, and 13 were directly affected by the home environment. That is, if the home environment was more cognitively stimulating no matter the socioeconomic status, children were more likely to have higher levels of AIM. (The children weren’t assessed at ages 11 or 12.)

Obviously, there are many factors that can make a home cognitively stimulating. This is great news because even those parents without the resources to take their kids on vacations, give them piano lessons, or buy a computer can still contribute to the development of AIM. The possibilities are endless: reading to them at the library, attending free cultural events held by the community and discussing them afterward, encouraging them to play sports or develop other hobbies, and not allowing TV to be a babysitter are a few examples. Neither do parents need to be exceptionally smart to implement these activities.

By the way, it’s been demonstrated that using external rewards (like money) to motivate children to do well is much less effective at fostering AIM development than simply encouraging internal motivation with parental involvement (another paper by the same group). So if coercion with money or presents still sounds like an easier option, it isn’t the optimal one.

While many factors outside of parental control probably go into child development, it’s reassuring to have evidence that affluence or social status aren’t always the determining factors. Informing parents of ways to facilitate AIM would be well worth the effort.