Are you frustrated because your kid would rather do literally anything other than their school work? The good news is that a reluctance to engage with formal learning doesn’t necessarily make your kid lazy. In fact, most kids are very much interested in learning about the world around them; it just needs to be done a little differently.

So, if you’re tired of having to encourage, coerce, bribe, or even brow-beat your kids into learning, STOP.

The secret to motivating your kid to learn is for them to motivate themselves. In other words, instead of you trying to make them learn (external motivation), take a step back and unlock the ultimate source of kick in the pants: INTRINSIC MOTIVATION. This is the fire that burns within each of us that compels us to get up and do the dang thing.

Ready to find out how intrinsic motivation works and how to harness it? Let’s go!

Hi! We’re Brainscape

Brainscape's flashcards for young kids

As the team behind the world’s smartest study app, we’ve spent a lot of time deep-diving decades’ of scientific literature on how humans learn. And what we learned, we applied to the design of our app, which not only leverages the way the brain is hardwired to retain information, but also optimizes motivation to learn by:

  • Being ridiculously simple to use;
  • Being entirely accessible via any device, anytime, anywhere;
  • Having a colorful and engaging interface;
  • Enabling you to instantly pick up where you (or your kids) left off;
  • Making even just five minutes of studying quality learning time;
  • Constantly measuring and displaying your progress.

We have also curated a comprehensive collection of engaging flashcards for early childhood education, which you can use to help your young kids prepare for, and cope in, kindergarten and beyond. From numbers, counting, and colors, to ABCs, reading, emotions, and self-awareness skills, you can use these flashcards to teach your kid in bite-sized lessons they’ll love. But more on how our certified ECE flashcards can help to motivate your little ones to learn in a bit.

Right now, let’s answer your burning question: How do you motivate a stubborn child to learn?

Motivating your kids: The mistake most parents make

Learning with your kids

How do you motivate your kids? With pep talks and words of encouragement? With the promise of sweet rewards or punishment like additional household chores?

Whatever tactic you use, the fact remains that you’re here, reading this … so it’s not working the way you want.

As long as YOU take responsibility for motivating your kids, they’re only ever going to do their school work because they feel they have to—because of the short-lived outcome they desire (rewards) or are trying to avoid (punishment). Even if it works at first, it’ll soon lose its appeal. This is the mistake that most parents make.

What you should do is teach your kids to be the source of their own motivation so that you don’t have to be a helicopter parent; so that when you turn your back, they’re just as dedicated to learning as when you’re monitoring them. That’s the dream isn’t it?

Well, it’s the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation

When the driving force to do something comes from the outside (from a parent, for example), it’s called external or extrinsic motivation and it simply isn’t effective in the long term for helping kids succeed. Think about your own experience. How much more motivated were you to accomplish a task when you were invested in its outcome versus because your parents were hollering at you to do it?

  • Intrinsic motivation is feeling compelled to do something because you inherently enjoy that task, hobby, or activity. Kids are intrinsically motivated to play because play is awesome.
  • Extrinsic motivation is doing something because you recognize the value of a separate outcome, like not making your parents cross.

Your parents may hound you all week about cleaning your room but it’s only when you invite your crush over “to study” that you suddenly find the motivation to get the job done!

When the driving force is internal, you’ll find your kids working towards their goals of their own volition. And, sure, it won’t be perfect. Some days, they might benefit from a little encouragement from you. But for the most part, they’ll switch gears and take responsibility for their own work.

Of course, young kids, especially pre-K, don’t yet have the cognitive ability to appreciate the long-term benefits of doing things they might not feel like doing. But the intrinsic motivation to learn about the world around them begins in infancy, so if you tap into that, it doesn’t matter how young they are, you won’t have to extrinsically motivate them to learn.

We’re going to show you how to do that right now: here are our best tips on how to motivate a lazy child to learn

Tip # 1: Stop trying to motivate your kids

Kid saying stop

Our first tip is to stop trying to motivate your kids. Very likely, your attempts at using traditional motivators like nagging, rewarding, scolding, praising, etc. are achieving the exact opposite of what’s intended, teaching them:

  • That unless there’s some kind of reward attached to an effort, it’s not worth doing;
  • To negatively associate learning (something they should enjoy doing) with punishment (something they don’t enjoy doing); and
  • To do things for you (and your approval), instead of for themselves.

If, on the other hand, your kids were intrinsically motivated to learn, they’d do it for its pure enjoyment, rather than because they have to … because you told them so.

How the heck do you get your kids to be intrinsically motivated to learn?

Tip # 2: Inspire their learning, don’t control it

The first step is to inspire your kid’s learning rather than to control it.

Most of the ways parents try to motivate their kids is through acts of control or manipulation, like rewards, praise, punishment, or scolding. As long as you apply that pressure, your kids won’t discover the joy of learning separate and apart from your influence. So you have to allow your kids to be autonomous—to self-initiate their learning—which is an essential condition for intrinsic motivation.

Studies show that when students are free from the pressure to learn, they learn more effectively, have a better conceptual understanding of the subject, and actually remember their lessons for longer. When they feel controlled, on the other hand, their intrinsic motivation decreases and they are less likely to perform well. It’s science!

So rather than policing your kid’s learning, give them autonomy and focus on inspiring them.

How do you do that? So many ways! Here’s a list:

  • Show them the beauty in an activity, and how to enjoy doing it.
  • Help them visualize their learning goals. This is one of the most important things missing in education: kids aren’t visualizing the ultimate goal. To get into a good school; to be able to perform more complex skills; to become what they want to become later on in life … help them visualize that goal! The more goal-driven your kid is, the more intrinsically motivated.
  • Create a learning environment that allows for exploration and discovery: it’s about acquiring new knowledge, not about completing tasks and checking off the boxes.
  • Focus on the experience of learning and not solely the outcome (completed homework, good grades).
  • Get them curious about their subject or a new skill by showing them how it’s used in the real world and how they can use it in everyday life.
  • Let them choose their own activities and subjects without your influence, based upon their natural interests. Sure, you can give them all the information they need but allow them to make the decision.
  • Celebrate success milestones with them, but don’t overdo the praise. They’re doing this for themselves, not for your praise.
  • When you do praise them, acknowledge the fact that they tried hard, worked with determination, and were brave in their choices rather than for inherent traits they already have. For example: if your kid is a talented artist and has produced a beautiful picture of a running horse, praise them for choosing such a difficult subject matter to draw and on capturing its movement and essence, rather than how good an artist they are. This will place the emphasis on their creativity rather than “the self”—their ego.
  • Support their learning with constructive feedback. If you criticize them, you’ll only chip away at their sense of competence.
  • If they get stuck, reframe their situation as a “challenge they can conquer” not a “problem or difficulty they have to overcome”. Remind them of other times they thought they couldn't do something, and how proud they were when they finally did.
  • Instill DAILY habits early on. Kids need structure and consistency, so when arranging their daily schedule, be consistent with the activities and distribution of break times. This will also show them the value of learning a little bit every day, rather than rushing to learn everything (cramming) right before an assessment.
  • Don’t use breaks from learning as a reward! You don’t want to teach your child that a lack of learning or homework is desirable.

Now, let’s turn our attention to engaging and fun tools you can use to support your kids’ learning.

Tip # 3: Use a learning tool that’s engaging and intrinsically motivating

There’s an app for everything nowadays but top of our list for engaging young kids, while helping them learn essential knowledge TWICE as efficiently as any other method is Brainscape! (Read about the complete cognitive science of Brainscape here.)

Brainscape's early childhood education flashcards
Mobile dashboard: Brainscape’s early childhood education flashcards consist of six collections, each of which targets a different core skill, like reading or numeracy.

We’ve worked with experts in early childhood education to distill down the complete recommended curriculum for preschoolers into a collection of engaging adaptive flashcards for reading skills (letter names and IDs, sight words, sounding out words, alliteration, and rhyming); "Things around me" (common objects, animals, people, places, weather, anatomy, and emotions); and math skills (numbers, counting, quantity, colors, and so much more).

Brainscape's complete flashcards for kids

These you work through WITH your kid, which is what sets our app apart from the other “babysitter apps”. It’s a learning tool that you use at home to advance your kids’ early learning, while teaching them to honestly self-assess how well they know each fact. Read more in ‘How to use Brainscape to teach your kids’.

We also have a vast library of certified flashcard collections for kids of ALL ages, so if your babies aren’t, well, babies anymore and are running the gauntlet of high school, we’ve got collections on every subject they’re taking, from biology, chemistry, and history to geography, economics, and language. (Check out Brainscape’s Knowledge Genome of flashcards here!)

The question is, how does an app like Brainscape work to intrinsically motivate your kid?

For younger children, it’s the:

  • Engaging content and colorful imagery;
  • Change of learning media from books to your phone or iPad, which they tend to positively associate with fun games;
  • Quality time spent with you, their parent or guardian; and
  • The upward tick of the Mastery-o-meter (kids love seeing their progress, too!)

Check out this video...

For older kids, it’s the:

  • Simplicity and accessibility (they can study Brainscape on any device, anytime, anywhere);
  • Decreased sense of work burden because Brainscape breaks down big subjects into bite-sized flashcards and study sessions;
  • Ability to instantly pick up where they left off in their studies (Brainscape automatically syncs across all devices);
  • Measurable progress, which they can see every time they complete a 10-card round; and
  • Potent learning ability, with even just five minute study sessions adding up over a day, bringing them so much closer to mastery of a subject.

For the full scoop on how Brainscape can improve your kids’ learning, check out the linked guide. And for older humans who can use Brainscape on their own (but who need to find a little motivation to study) read: ‘Finding study motivation when you want to procrastinate’.

Tip # 4: Help your kids see the value in the tasks they don’t want to do

Okay, so you’ve stopped nagging your kids; you’ve given them autonomy in their learning; introduced engaging apps like Brainscape; and you’re doing your best to inspire them. And yet, in spite of all this, if your kid doesn’t enjoy a task or subject, they’re still not going to be intrinsically motivated to do it. How the holy heck can you inspire a kid to take charge of their learning if they dislike a subject?

You show them how that subject can be useful to them.

Let’s take math, for example. All-too-often it’s hard to see how math might benefit us in the real world. That is, until you introduce money into the equation. Basic math becomes a covetable skill when you’ve got a jar of change in front of you and the candy store is open for business! Your kids are going to become so much more invested in learning math if it unlocks something they want.

Or how about keeping their room tidy? You can set an expectation with consequences. The expectation: you want their rooms to be tidied on Thursdays. If it’s still in disarray on Friday morning when you wake them up, then they forfeit having friends over. Why? Because their room is untidy and unfit for company. Therefore, keeping their room tidy is in their best interests if they want friends over.

The decision is theirs, but the consequences are immutable. If they miss the deadline, you cannot allow any amount of begging or subsequent efforts to clean to sway you from those consequences, or they’ll just learn that deadlines—and boundaries—are optional.

These are just two examples. There are all kinds of creative ways you can teach your kids to appreciate the value of learning or doing things they don’t necessarily enjoy. And by getting them to grasp this value, you’ll unlock their intrinsic motivation.

Read: 'What I learned about parenting from training my dog'

Tip # 5: Allow your child to make their own decisions (and deal with the consequences)

Kid makes mistake

Remember we spoke about letting go of control over your kid’s learning, and instead concentrating on inspiring them? This is often incredibly challenging for parents who are convinced that if they let go in any way, their kid is going to totally bomb out at school.

And sure, the immediate kick-back might be that their grades drop. If it’s their decision to not to do their homework or study because—hey, mom or dad has stopped nagging me—allow them to experience the consequences of that decision.

When they see that their decision leads to a crappy test score, a failed assignment, falling behind their classmates, or disappointing their teacher, they’ll most likely pull up their socks on their own. And when they do, they will have learned a very powerful lesson AND gained the self-confidence to make smarter decisions in the future.

Remember: autonomy is crucial in creating intrinsic motivation.

One of the most valuable things you will ever teach your kids is to take responsibility for the choices they make. And failing is an inevitable part of learning to make good decisions so it’s totally okay for them to blunder.

You can help them with goal-setting and perhaps even sweeten the deal with a reward—“$5 for every ‘A’ you bring home” or whatever works for your family—but beyond setting these goalposts and offering your support, leave the decision-making up to them.

What if the thing your kid doesn’t want to do is non-negotiable? Like going to school?

While most kids don’t love school, they do love seeing their friends and learning new things so there might be something going on that’s affecting your kids’ happiness. Perhaps they’re being bullied, or they’re struggling to make friends, or they have a particularly mean teacher, or they’re having separation anxiety from you. Work with your kid to figure out why they dislike school so much and help them overcome that obstacle.

Also, it’s worth rethinking what you consider to be “non-negotiable”. For example, just because you want your kid to play in an orchestra someday isn’t reason enough to force them to continue violin lessons when they clearly hate it. Ask them what they want. Give them a choice, allow them to make that decision, and then take responsibility for the consequences.

Tip # 6: Show them how capable they are with an optimal challenge

One of the best ways to inspire intrinsic motivation is to help your kids feel a sense of accomplishment and competence. And you can do this by presenting them with an optimal challenge, which is a task or assignment that’s slightly more complex and challenging than they’re used to, and yet still achievable through practice and dedication.

For example, an optimal challenge could be a new guitar piece they’ve never played before that incorporates slightly more difficult chords, chord changes, and fingerwork. If they practice, practice, practice and eventually master that piece, their intrinsic motivation to keep learning guitar will sky-rocket. They’ve conquered the challenge! And it has allowed them to see their improvement in real time, which is hugely motivating to them.

Children develop a growth mindset when they believe that they can become good at something through practice and hard work. An optimal challenge will teach them this.

Read: For excellent advice on optimizing your kids’ learning, check out our guide ‘How can I teach my young kids at home?

Tip # 7: Leverage your parent-child bond to motivate your kids to learn

Parent-child bond

Think about all the things you do on a daily basis for other people. Not because you LIKE doing those things and not because you HAVE to do those things, but because doing them is valued by the people you feel connected to.

Social bonding is a powerful driving force behind behavior. If you’re bonded to someone like a parent, you are so much more likely to listen to them, adopt their values, and engage enthusiastically in the activities they deem important, even if you’re not a huge fan of those activities. As a parent, you can leverage this to get your kids to participate in tasks and activities they might not be intrinsically motivated to do!

For example: I used to help my mom in the garden even though I didn’t care much for gardening then. I did it because I wanted to show her my interest in her passion and because I knew she appreciated the help and company. I simply wouldn't have made the effort if I wasn’t so deeply bonded to my mom.

The key here is to bond effectively with your kid—do that and they’ll be much more intrinsically motivated to follow your lead. How do you do that?

Adopt a more authoritative parenting style. Research shows that authoritative parents bond with their children far more effectively than any other parenting style (yes, even parents who give their kids everything they want). An authoritative parent is responsive to their kids’ emotional needs, yet still has high standards for their behavior, setting healthy limits and consistently enforcing boundaries.

The home of an authoritative parent is also a more democratic, autonomy-supportive environment that inspires kids’ independence and intrinsic motivation, even for the less-desirable tasks and subjects.

(As the child of one authoritative parent and one push-over parent, I can truly attest to the bonding value of the former.)

Tip # 8: Participate in (not control) your kids’ learning

Participating with your kids in activities

Another way you can deepen the bond with your kids is to participate in the activity they’re learning, and to show them how much you value that activity.

Let’s say the activity is reading. Just spending quality time with your kid, reading to them and having them follow along in the book is almost certainly going to inspire them to become readers. Or the activity could be playing baseball with them in the yard after school; doing math sums with them; helping with school projects; listening to them practice their Spanish. The effect is the same.

Being actively involved, without controlling, your kids’ learning is going to deepen your bond with them and help them find greater intrinsic motivation in the subjects and activities they might not have loved beforehand.

What a gift that is to both of you!

Tip # 9: Encourage your kids to ask questions

Get your kids to participate in their education and stoke their curiosity by encouraging them to ask questions; even praise them for asking insightful questions. If their education is an interactive experience for them, rather than just being one-sided, they’ll be far more intrinsically motivated to participate and pay attention; and even possibly spend time outside of “class time” actually thinking about what they’re learning.

Tip # 10: Talk to your kids about failure

Many parents avoid the topic of failure because the focus is so firmly set on success … and yet failure is an inevitable and even essential part of growth. So have it become a part of your conversations.

  • Tell them about these famous people who failed, yet persevered and went on to be great.
  • Tell them about your own failures, what you did to bounce back, and what you learned from the experience.
  • Ask them what their advice would be for a classmate who failed at something, whether it’s a test, making the soccer team, or whatever. (Coming up with motivation advice for someone else deepens the internal sense of motivation that is their own.)

Most of all, dismantle the idea that success is the only option and failure is to be avoided at all costs. The only way to avoid failure entirely is to never try in the first place and that’s the last thing you want for your kids. A growth mindset embraces failure as an important opportunity for learning.

Read: How to build your kids resilience (without traumatizing them)

A final word on motivating your kid to learn

Motivating your kids to learn

We’ve covered quite a bit of ground in answering the question “How do you motivate a lazy child to learn?” We highlighted the important difference between external (extrinsic) and intrinsic (internal) motivation and gave you 10 solid tips on how to encourage your child to be more intrinsically motivated to learn:

Tip # 1: Stop trying to motivate your kids

Tip # 2: Inspire their learning, don’t control it

Tip # 3: Use a learning tool that’s engaging and intrinsically motivating

Tip # 4: Help your kids see the value in the tasks they don’t want to do

Tip # 5: Allow your child to make their own decisions (and deal with the consequences)

Tip # 6: Show them how capable they are with an optimal challenge

Tip # 7: Leverage your parent-child bond to motivate your kids to learn

Tip # 8: Participate in (not control) your kids’ learning

Tip # 9: Encourage your kids to ask questions

Tip # 10: Talk to your kids about failure

The theme in many of these tips is really to give your kid more autonomy, so we’d like to end this guide off with the message to take a more supportive, rather than controlling, role as parent. If you allow your child to plot and navigate their course (with your gentle guidance and given the necessary information), they will surely rise to their challenge just as you’d hoped they would.

And if they don’t, they’ll learn from their mistakes, pick themselves up, and rise stronger than before.

Additional resources for parents & teachers: