What My Son is Teaching Me About Cultivating Intrinsic Motivation

My sister took this picture of our son, Owen, at his first cross country meet this fall. 

I love this picture because you can see & feel the sheer determination, grit, and intrinsic motivation bursting through every muscle and cell of his being.

And it's exciting....because it wasn't always like this with Owen.

When he was in 3rd grade, Owen participated in a community event called The Healthy Running Series. 5 races, over 5 weeks at 4pm on Sundays. The intention of the Healthy Running Series is to get kids moving, bring families together, and to promote an active community lifestyle experience for all. 

What our family discovered during those 5 Sundays was that Owen was fast. Like won-every-race-by-a-longshot-fast.

But here's the thing....he didn't like it. He wanted to quit.

By the 3rd Sunday he was saying that he didn't want to go. He described feeling like his heart was going to burst and he was going to die. Once he got the taste of winning his first couple races, he put all kinds of pressure on himself to win each one.  

No matter how much Tyler and I encouraged him to let go of the pressure to win and just enjoy the experience of running, his perfectionistic streak would kick in once he got on the course. He couldn't help but pull out all the stops, but he wasn't enjoying himself or having fun. What was intended to be a healthy running experience turned into an unhealthy hell for him of perfectionistic self expectation. 

Completing that Healthy Running Series was Owen's first time earning a 1st place trophy, and he hid it in his closet.  

This was an interesting parenting moment for Tyler and I. We could see that our kid had talent, and yet we could also see that he wasn't quite ready to claim it for himself in a way that felt good to him.

Ultimately, we decided to honor what Owen was telling us about his experience. We encouraged him to finish this series, and then we didn't push or pressure him to sign up for it again.

We got a glimpse into his talent, but we let it go until it was ready to come from the inside out, rather than be forced or pushed.

Fast forward to the present day. Owen is now in 7th grade, chose to join the cross country team at his middle school, and asked me to sign him up for The Healthy Running Series this year. 

That original 1st place trophy has come out of the closet and has a prominent place on the desk in his bedroom, along with the collection of ribbons & medals he now proudly displays from his cross country meets. 


So what happened? What changed? As parents, how do you "hold the safe space" for the talent and potential that you see in your kids until they are ready to hold it for themselves?

I won't pretend for a moment that I have all the answers. And every kid and situation must be considered on an individual basis because like with all things....context matters. But in this case, I can clearly see the pattern that the first step in showing up with patience and grace for my kid, was showing up with patience and grace for myself.

If I had not shifted my mentality from the constant go-go-go, do-do-do, push-push-push that our culture encourages us to subscribe to, I'm not sure I would have been as aware or receptive to the information that my kid was sharing with me: "I know myself, I know my body & mind, and I'm not ready for this, so back off."

In my work with parents and educators, they are often concerned because they've noticed that by the time kids are juniors in high school they are reporting symptoms of burnout much like the adults they have modeled themselves after. My message to them is that our kids are simply reflecting back to us where we need to improve. 

When we put unrealistic expectations on ourselves to keep up with the Jones' or the rat race, we knowingly or unknowingly put that upon our kids too. An alternative perspective to offer ourselves and our kids is that there are many ways to the top of the mountain. Sometimes the go-go-go, do-do-do, push-push-push mentality is what will get us there. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking it's the only way to get the results we desire.

And hey, let's also make sure we're stopping to enjoy the view as we climb, too. 

Wanna climb your personal mountain?  Reach out! 

ring:  612-405-8836
Meet:  Click HERE to set up a 30 minute meeting with me!

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