Intrinsic motivation is doing something because you have the inner drive to do it and you find pleasure in the activity, not because of external rewards and pressure. You do it because it is enjoyable and interesting to you. Intrinsic motivation enables us to:
In regards to feeding and internal motivation, there are many factors motivating us to eat, such as:
With responsive feeding, it is so important for parents to keep the big picture in mind in order to support positive food interactions and help their children build their own internal motivation for eating. We want children to develop long term positive relationships with food, and focusing too much on an individual meal or how much a child has eaten in the moment can make us lose sight of this. Phrases such as “one more bite, then you can have__” or “just take one more bite” can be unhelpful as they add external pressure/rewards and begin to interrupt a child’s natural satiety cues. Language such as this may also place pressure for children to eat because the adult is asking them to, not because they want to. Children are natural learners and learn through making connections and experiences. It is the job of parents to guide children through life so they feel safe and free to explore as active learners, and build on their interests to support their internal motivation and curiosity. As mentioned above, How and What we say to our children matters. Actions and words can be a powerful tool in guiding our children during mealtimes. Instead of telling your child “good job” after they eat, consider replacing this with:
Using alternative phrases such as these can help your child develop their own sense of self. Guiding words can support our children to be able to trust their instincts and be more confident with themselves and how they are participating in mealtimes. Being in the moment with your child and understanding their need to explore with some independence at their own pace also creates opportunities for you to connect with your child by understanding their wants and needs.
It is the parents’ job to be responsive to their child and support them in exploring a variety of foods while they learn about their own preferences related to mealtimes. As children show us their preferences, it can be easy to begin using labels to categorize these preferences and how they participate in mealtimes. While it is wonderful to find our favorite foods, it is important to actively view others for all of who they are as a person beyond individual preferences. Saying labeling phrases during mealtimes, such as “My child does not eat meat,” may tell the child they do not like something and influence their decisions when the child may still be learning to like that food. We do not want to set limits when our child does not see those limits themselves. We want to encourage children to eat the food they like while continuing to explore new foods, not because the parents want them to eat it, but because they enjoy it.
We trust that your child is the best person to know their true appetite, that they can learn to understand their own internal hunger cues, and to know which foods they enjoy eating. With responsive guidance, children will be able to follow their own internal motivation to participate in mealtimes. When we are responsive, parents focus on the things their child is interested in and that are meaningful to them. Parents are finding what their child loves and building on those positive experiences to create more. We can allow children to enjoy eating and build on what they are excited by to continue exploring and learn about new foods.
Written by: Nicole Bing, OTD-S
Ellyn Satter Institute. Raise a healthy child who is a joy to feed. https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/the-division-of-responsibility-in-feeding/.
Cormack, J., Rowell, K., & Postăvaru, G. I. (2020). Self-determination theory as a theoretical framework for a responsive approach to child feeding. Journal of nutrition education and behavior, 52(6), 646-651.
Rowell, K.; Wong, G.; Cormack, J; Moreland, H. (2021). Responsive Feeding Therapy: Values and Practice. https://www.responsivefeedingtherapy.com/rft-values-and-principles