Sparks that Motivate: Learn About It

What Are “Sparks” and How Can They Motivate Your Child?

Listen. I listen. And I believe in him just as much as he believes in me. So I try to support him by bein’ interested in what he likes, and trying it out.

“Sparks” describe interests and skills that “light fires” in our lives. They provide energy, joy, purpose, and direction in life. They are engaging and deeply motivating. Sparks are the hidden flames in your kids that light their fire, get them excited, and tap into their true passions. Research shows that:

  • Sparks come from the gut. They motivate kids, inspiring them to pursue their authentic passions, talents, skills, and dreams.
  • Sparks can be musical, athletic, intellectual, academic, relational. They can be anything from playing the violin to working with kids or senior citizens.
  • Sparks get kids going on a positive path. Sparks steer kids away from the conflicts and negative issues like violence, teen sex, drugs and alcohol.
  • Sparks, when they are known and acted on, help kids realize that “my life has a purpose.”1,2

All kids have the ember of sparks within them. Yet they need the “oxygen” of spark conversations and developmental relationships to help those embers grow into sparks and true flames.

Some kids can name their sparks. Some have identified and are working on their sparks. Others have not yet explored or discovered their sparks. And some kids sort of know but can’t yet claim sparks because they are discouraged. Some kids may need more assistance from parents and other adults. They need extra encouragement, such as going to an unfamiliar event to watch a new activity from the sidelines.

Why Do “Sparks” Matter?

Always encouraging them. Even if in the back of your head, you know, ‘Hmmm, he’s not the best player at that sport,’ but if that’s what they want to do and they want to try it, then you encourage them to try it and push ‘em.

Search Institute’s studies3,4 show that young people who know and develop their sparks and have three or more caring adults who help them with their sparks have some great advantages and benefits in life. These benefits include:  

  • higher grades in school
  • better friendship skills
  • better physical health
  • better school attendance rates
  • being more likely to have a sense of purpose in their lives
  • being more likely to say they are “on the road to a hopeful future”

When young people feel that they are “good” at something, like music, sports, math, or something else, they gain an authentic sense of achievement. They become more confident that they have what it takes to succeed at school, work, and other areas of life—especially if they are acknowledged and celebrated by adults and peers. This sense of competence is called self-efficacy.

The Presence of Sparks in Young People’s Lives

Researchers found that 62 percent of American teenagers could name their sparks, while 38 percent could not. These were the most common sparks of 15-year-old youth in 2010, when they were asked to identify their strongest spark:

The most common sparks of 15-year-old youth in a 2010 study.

SOURCE: Scales, P.C., Benson, P.L., & Roehlkepartain, E.C. (2010). Teen voice 2010: Relationships that matter to America’s teens. Minneapolis: Search Institute and the Best Buy Children’s Foundation.

Next Steps

  • Take the quiz to explore the ways you boost your kids' motivation with sparks.
  • Talk about sparks with your kids and other parenting adults.

Research Sources

1. Benson, P. L. (2008). Sparks: How parents can help ignite the hidden strengths of teenagers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

2. Scales, P.C. (2010, December) Finding the student spark: Missed opportunities in school engagement. Search Institute Insights & Evidence 5 (1).

3. Scales, P. C., Benson, P. L., & Roehlkepartain, E. C. (2011). Adolescent thriving: The role of sparks, relationships, and empowerment. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(3), 263–277.

4. Scales, P.C., Benson, P.L., & Roehlkepartain, E.C. (2010). Teen voice 2010: Relationships that matter to America’s teens. Minneapolis: Search Institute and the Best Buy Children’s Foundation.