Motivation as Instinct

Want to know about instinct? Observe a toddler.

Motivational drives are noticeably inherent in a child. Typical toddler behaviours can tell us a lot about our own natural, instinctual, genetically determined drives: We can all learn a lot about human nature by observing a toddler.

In this post, I provide an overview of motivational drives that seem genetically determined (instinctive drives of homo sapiens) if you take a toddler as a blueprint. Over decades I have noticed how trends change, and how adult meaning-making shape-shifts with the times. And yet, if you observe a toddler, you see the same urges – it is the adults who try to influence these urges. But if you watch carefully, you will see: The essence of what it means to be human.

In this blog, I provide an overview. In follow-up posts, I will discuss the others, one by one.

Key points

  1. A strong bodily/motor drive, also for mastery.
  2. The motivation to explore.
  3. Fascination with novelty.
  4. A natural tendency to imitate.
  5. A sense of adventure/humour (they think it is very funny if they run away or hide from you).
  6. The drive towards connection with same-age peers.
  7. An inherent tendency to reach out for (want) what someone else has.
  8. A built-in, powerful attitude towards ownership (“mine” ).
  9. A connection to natural elements – sand, water, space…children naturally expand in a forest, their bodies and their mind can suddenly interact; without prompting they will build bridges and shelters and want to climb onto rocks and pull branches behind them.
  10. Somewhere there is a space: “This is me”. It gets expressed in the toys that they naturally gravitate towards, in the games that they want to play over and again, in the repeated story that a child seemingly never gets tired of. It is the essence of individual identity. The seat of consciousness of the “I”.
  11. A strong urge towards autonomy (“Did it myself”).
  12. The need to share experiences, and to be acknowledged.
  13. The drive for power.

A toddler will:

1. Move just for the sake of moving

Running away from you can be great fun (as well as hiding). The outdoors seems to be made for this. Toddlers love climbing: stairs, couches, tables, and chairs. It is the motivation to express oneself physically, and to physically explore the interaction between self and environment. It is the joy of being out there.

2. Drive towards ownership

If another child puts out a pleading hand for something that your toddler has, they will pull it closer to their body, stating firmly “mine”. This is a demarcation of boundaries – mine vs yours.

3. Explore, be curious and discern

Toddlers pull themselves up on furniture to see what is up there and then pull whatever they can reach over to their side for inspection. they will test it out, and if it disappoints they will simply drop it on the floor.

4. Explore environments

They will pull out the drawers and see what they can do with the stuff inside – pull over a head, bang against each other, pile on top of each other. How many parents have not said, “I buy all these expensive toys, and then they prefer the kitchen drawers?

5. Be fascinated with novelty and drive towards imitation

If you show them something novel, they will look on, fascinated. A hand is then stretched out to take hold of it, whereafter they will try to mimic your actions. All children are geared to be imitators: This is how they learn what it means to be human. Young children today copy the mannerisms that they see on screen. Boys generally tend to imitate males and girls females. This seems to be genetically determined behaviour.

6. DeSIRE and envy

If another child has something the toddler fancies, they will grab it, and hold it fast despite the other one’s protest. If you take what was not theirs away from them, they will protest loudly.

7. the capacity for flow and sensory attraction

Given sand or water (combining both is even better), and maybe some basic equipment, toddlers will become immersed in play oblivious to cold and wet clothes.

8. Sustain attention

There will be a favourite toy that gets played with again repeatedly. It can seem quite random what this toy will be. This is the capacity for being in flow, and feeling integrated and at peace. It is also a marker of being in “true self”. (And always hard to see when parents interrupt this play for reasons of “neatness’ or inflexible timetables, or even worse, forbid it).

9. Attract peers and friendships

Other children attract and hold their attention. They will toddle over to a strange child and stand in front of them and look, and then attempt some interaction. If the other child rebuffs them, they will seem quite put out, and often will try to persist, with one balking and one keen – just as you are about to leave, the two will suddenly, inexplicably, decide to play together beautifully.

10. Drive towards autonomy and competence

“Self.” “Did it myself.” “No, self do it”.

11. Need to share experiences, and to be acknowledged.

They will bring you stuff to look at. The need for appreciation and interaction. For shared experiences of wonder and joy and appreciation.

At the base of it all: A SECURE HOME. A SAFE BASE that allows you to explore, to express yourself, and to return to when in need. A toddler will explore wildly, and as soon as it gets a fright or gets hurt, it will run to a trusted caregiver, expecting to be picked up, to be soothed. We all need this person.


I leave this one for last, as it probably needs more than one chapter. It is best captured by the single word, “No”, or “Won’t “. It is easily seen in the mere (but very firm) turning sideways of a head.

Read more in part two

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