I home schooled my own children for many years. As a home schooling mother, I have been concerned about motivation for all of those years. In 1995 I started Mother of Divine Grace School, which now has over 4600 students enrolled. I have, of course, had even more opportunities to think about motivation since then.

The home schooling mother hopes that her children will love learning for its own sake, that they will arise every morning with a smile on their faces and will eagerly move to their books, anxious to make their own the wisdom contained therein. What she finds many mornings is that they don’t want to get out of bed, that they groan, “Oh, no, not math again,” that their work is sloppy, and that when they are motivated, it is motivation just to get the work done, so that they may be free to do what they really want. It’s not the picture she had of home schooling.

Now, there are two preliminary things I would like to say before considering motivation itself. One is that I don’t want to scare anyone. Not all children are unwilling to learn, and I find that as they get older they generally get more interested in knowledge for its own sake, no matter what you do or don’t do. The second is something I remember from when I was in college. I was speaking to one of my professors and telling him how much I loved school, how much I loved class, how much I loved philosophy, how exciting I thought it all was, and how I couldn’t imagine that anyone else wouldn’t feel the same way. He looked at me thoughtfully and said, “Yes, Laura, but don’t you think that there is a certain recoil in the human spirit from anything that resembles…work?”

As a matter of fact, I do. It’s important to remember that we are dealing with human nature, fallen human nature, and that everyone has to overcome a certain resistance to toil.

Those things being said, I would like to discuss what I have learned in my years of home schooling about motivating children to do school work cheerfully and be interested in learning for its own sake.

As always, when considering a question, it is important to have a vision of the whole. I am going to get to the particular techniques that have worked for me, or for the mothers I work with. But for you to use those techniques fruitfully, you need to see the various possibilities and their relationship to the ultimate end.

When one is trying to decide what math text to use for a particular child, for example, he must know what the possibilities are, and where he is ultimately trying to go. If calculus is the end desired, he needs to know, first, whether this text that he is considering teaches addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, algebra, trigonometry, or calculus. He needs to know that the other items I just listed will lead to an ability to do calculus and that if they do not, he is not interested in them. He also needs to know what this child already knows, so that he doesn’t waste time by starting with a text that is too easy, or waste time by starting with a text that is too hard and will have to be repeated.

Now, he or she may not have an exhaustive understanding of mathematics, and may rely on others who do. But then, those others had better have that vision of the whole. Whoever is making the decision about which text should come first, and which second, and whether the texts will lead to the knowledge of calculus, needs to have a knowledge of the whole, and of the parts that make up the whole, in order to make the right decisions.

The same thing is true about how to motivate children. First we need to consider the end we want to achieve, and the steps that will lead us there.

By motivation here we are talking about that which moves one to act. In this case the action we are interested in is learning, or acquiring knowledge. We want to discuss what we can do in our home schools to help children both learn, and want to learn. We want them to achieve the end - knowledge - and we want them to desire that end for its own sake.

The end is the cause of causes. Aristotle, in Bk. II, Ch. 3 of the Physics, says “men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’ of it (which is to grasp its primary cause).” The causes, he goes on to say, are four in number: matter, form, agent and end. But the end, “ ‘ that for the sake of which’, means what is best and the end of the things that lead up to it.”

Knowledge is an end. It is a good that is desirable in itself, not only for whatever else one might achieve because he knows. If a student is moved by the desire for knowledge, if he is one of those children who gets up in the morning eager to make the wisdom of the text his own, then he is motivated by the internal excellence of the end.

Or, if he is one of those wonderful children who wants to please God, and do whatever God wants him to do, so that he studies cheerfully for God’s sake, he is motivated by an end which is consonant with knowledge, but to which knowledge is subordinated. Knowledge is a good in itself, an end, but it is not the ultimate end. Knowledge, like other created goods, is itself ordered to the uncreated good, God Himself.

Now, those are the ends we want to be motivations for our children. That’s where we want to lead them. And, fortunately, nature is working with us. People want to know. The Metaphysics of Aristotle starts out with “All men by nature desire to know.” It is fundamental to human nature to desire the perfection of the powers of the soul, and knowledge is the chief natural perfection.

But we are also working with two real impediments to cheerful pursuit of knowledge. Frankly, one is laziness and the other ignorance. What my professor said is true, we all resist, to one degree or another, work. So we have to really want to learn to be willing to do the required work. The other difficulty is that in particular cases the children can’t see the importance of the particular knowledge we want them to acquire. They may desire by nature to know, but they can’t see that this math lesson is one of the things they want to know.

In such cases, we can provide external motivations for learning. These may be material incentives, like money or stickers, or immaterial incentives like praise and companionship. We use these as steps in the acquisition of virtue, which, when acquired, will make it easy for the child to desire the end, knowledge, for its own sake.

Human virtue is a habit of the soul that makes its possessor good and his work good. This habit is achieved by repeated right action. Action is motivated by pleasure and pain. Aristotle tells us in the Ethics (Bk.2, Ch.3, 1104b10) that “..moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education.”

At that point, when the student has the virtuous habit of study, and the habit of obedience, the impediments of laziness and ignorance are no longer a problem. Having the habit of study makes it easy and pleasurable to study, and obedience makes the student trust his teacher (you), so that even when he doesn’t see the value of the study for himself, he believes you when you say it is important and interesting.

Until one gets to that point, however, he needs other pleasures and pains associated with the actions so that he will develop the habits. And once he gets to that point, he doesn’t have far to go before the desire for knowledge itself will be enough motivation.

When my children were little, and my husband and I were trying to get them to behave at Mass, we didn’t start out by explaining the nature of sacrifice and the hypostatic union, or the importance of joining our minds and hearts to the action of the priest, so that we could participate in Christ’s sacrifice for us. We definitely did eventually get to a point where we talked about those things, but our primary goal with the three year old was to keep him quietly in one place. We did that by using the incentive of doughnuts.

If Margaret, Theresa, John, Rachel, James, or Richard (take your pick – it was true for all six) would stay between Mommy and Daddy, and only whisper, then he or she would get a doughnut after Mass. If not, not. It was amazing how quickly they decided to stay between Mommy and Daddy (at least most of them).  As the children grew older, we moved on.

The next step, we told them, was to say, “My Lord and my God” at the consecration, and to put one’s hand on one’s heart. If that was done, then there was a doughnut after Mass. Once that was habitual, we added saying the “Our Father” with the congregation to the requirements. (The lips had to move, or it didn’t count.) When that was easy, we would explain about the three principle parts of Mass: Offertory, Consecration and Communion, and the child would need to offer himself (silently, but with mom noticing his attitude of attention) with the gifts at the Offertory, say “My Lord and my God,” at the Consecration, and make a spiritual communion at  Communion time. (I had a great prayer for spiritual communion which we taught the children.) If all three things were done, then there was a doughnut after Mass.

By the time we got to that point, we were usually ready to undertake serious First Communion preparation. The understanding was always that once you could receive Our Lord, you didn’t need the doughnut anymore, because you had something incomparably better. And that’s what happened. Once the children were receiving Communion they didn’t need the doughnut as an incentive. (Maybe they were sick of doughnuts by that point, but it’s still true that they continued to do the actions that had been required to get the doughnut, without needing to get it. My children are all old now but I notice when we are at Mass together, that they all still do those actions that they learned when they were little.)

The doughnut was a material external incentive. The children wanted to be good at Mass so that they could get the doughnut. They just weren’t ready to want to be good at Mass in order to participate in the sacrifice for its own sake. But they developed habits which helped them get to that point.

So, to summarize, before we move on to particular motivations, it is important in home schooling that the student be motivated to learn. Eventually, we want our students to be motivated by knowledge itself, or by the end to which knowledge is ordered, God Himself, but before the student gets to that point he may need to be motivated by external goals. These may be either material or immaterial. In my next article , I will discuss some of the external goods I have seen help students.

If you haven't already, check out Part 2 and Part 3 of our Motivation: The Key to Homeschooling series!