Teacher’s Corner: By Lisa Moody

External versus internal motivators in a parent’s desire for their children to learn a musical instrument

If you are like me, as a parent of a Suzuki child, you have thought a lot about how to motivate your child to practice their instrument without coercion and the risk of them losing interest altogether. Most of us would like our children to be self-driven and self-regulating in their practicing. We hope that our children will practice and play for personal enjoyment, derive independence through the learning process, and obtain a measure of social satisfaction from playing with other children. Together, these factors add value and meaning to their efforts and reinforce the learning cycle.

Suzuki training provides for all three aforementioned intrinsic (internal) motivators where a child’s natural curiosity for learning is nurtured through the development of technical skills that allow participation in music making with other children in the group class setting.

However, if we are honest, we have probably all resorted to bribery, rewards, or worse, threats to get our children to practice, and we may forget the reason why wanted our children to learn an instrument in the first place.  One factor that you may not have considered is the influence of parental motivation on your child’s learning and how our attitudes and beliefs influence the learning success of our children.

Researchers have defined parental intrinsic motivation as the consideration of a parent for children’s need for autonomy (e.g., one’s child has an interest in learning music), competence (e.g., to develop a child’s abilities) and relatedness (e.g., to create opportunities for one’s child to interact with others). In contrast, extrinsic (external) motivation refers to their consideration for the credits, prizes and other external awards that could result from music training (Liu Liu et al., 2015).

Not surprisingly, research has shown that a parent’s intrinsic motivation with respect to musical training is positively related to the success of the child.  Research has showed that when parents pay more attention to fulfilling children’s internal needs through, for example, encouraging children’s interests, curiosity and persistence, children are more likely to form intrinsic learning motivations and achieve better learning outcomes (Gottfried et al., 1994).

Accordingly, one would expect external motivators to negatively impact learning if they are undermining intrinsic motivation. For example, if providing extrinsic rewards results in feelings of incompetence or being externally controlled, the negative consequences of extrinsic rewards are more likely to occur.

On the other hand, there is the provision that extrinsic rewards could also produce positive effects, if they do not conflict with fulfilling individuals’ intrinsic needs (Liu Liu et al, 2015; Ryan and Deci, 2000).

Research shows that while intrinsic and extrinsic motivation coexist in parents’ minds, that external motivators can play an important moderating role in musical achievement. In other words, when parents have a high level of intrinsic motivation and engagement in their child’s learning, extrinsic rewards can have a positive effect  that can maximize the benefits of both types of motivators (Liu Liu et al, 2015).

Incentives and rewards used judiciously can be a way to mark or celebrate learning achievements as long as they are not the only motivator. For example, practice charts that upon completion result in a reward (e.g. seeing a movie, attending a concert, going out for ice-cream, etc.), can be very motivating and benefit both the child and parent – the child has an achievable practice goal and the reward is time spent together. Participating in a music festival like the Kiwanis Music Festival or taking a Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) exam are another type of external motivator that may complement and enhance the learning process.

To summarize, the best things we can do as parents to facilitate the learning process, is to focus on fulfilling the internal needs of our children. When a child’s needs for independence, competence, and community, are fulfilled, they will regard the learning process itself as interesting and joyful, and have a more positive attitude towards challenges.  It’s a win-win for parent and child!

Happy Practising!