This post has been brewing in my head for years now, but I was never quite sure how to put it all into words. All I knew was that from early on, back when Hailey was newly a toddler, I wanted her to be driven by an internal force. I wanted her to have thirst for knowledge and a sense of personal responsibility. I wasn’t quite sure how to verbalize why I didn’t offer rewards for potty training or sticker charts for good behavior. In fact, it took me years to realize the correct terminology of what it was I was so passionate about instilling in my children. Now I’ve learned that what I wanted most was for my children to be intrinsically motivated.
Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is intrinsically rewarding.
Yes. This. This is what David and I wanted for our kids.
Once I learned the terminology, I couldn’t stop reading into it. I wanted to know how to do a better job at encouraging this in my children. I wanted to teach my children from the start about taking ownership in their own successes and failures.
As I researched I learned the basics. We are all born with intrinsic motivation. It’s how we learn to sit up, walk and talk. The action we are working towards learning is appealing because the reward comes in the mastery of the skill itself.
I’ve kept this philosophy in my head as I parent because I don’t think children should be rewarded for doing what is expected of them. In my mind, things like being respectful and helping out are things you do because you are a decent human being and a member of the family. That’s how my parents raised me (I think I may even remember my mom and dad saying that exact phrase?).
Also, I do not believe in regular bribery as parenting tactic.
The problem with bribing children to do something is that they could possibly grow up believing that they always deserve some additional reward for simply doing what they are expected to do.
Additionally, rewards only work for the short term. I won’t say I never use them; I do! However, I try to limit using them to one-time-only situations. A recent example: a family road trip where the kids were exhausted from too much excitement and travel. They were taking forever to get buckled up so I said as soon as they buckled up we could start a movie. You can imagine how quickly they jumped in their seats!
Research points to using an extrinsic motivation in occasional situations is different than using rewards for everyday tasks, which run the risk of squashing internal motivation. I don’t want my kids asking me what’s in it for them every time I need them to do a simple task like brushing their teeth or putting on their shoes. I don’t want them to think bargaining with me over everyday tasks is an option.
I’m going to take a step back real quick. Have I bribed my children before? Yes. Have I been so tired on days that I just don’t care? Of course! But as I’ve continued to see the proof of the principles of intrinsic motivation bear fruit in my kids, I continuously recommit myself to strive for consistency in my actions.
Research concludes that internal motivation requires three elements: competency, autonomy and connection.
Adhering to these suggestions, several things have proven to work in our household:
- Praising effort rather than success or innate abilities. If you tell a child he or she is so smart, then it is very realistic that they could rest on their laurels then become frustrated and abandon a task that does not come easy to them. Conversely, praising them for their efforts despite the outcome will build their confidence in their ability to work hard for something that is important to them.
- Pointing out progress. Attention spans in young children aren’t often long so pointing out milestones they are reaching along the way can be helpful in showing them how far they’ve come. Examples of this include exclaiming with excitement the number of books they have read this week or pointing out that they only have one chore left to do. Breaking large tasks into smaller parts helps kids (and I’d say adults as well) to stay focused. Feeling successful will breed motivation to reach the next goal.
- Encouraging autonomy by offering choices and encouraging problem solving. Having Hailey take ownership in a task is a huge part of our success in getting her to do it. Beginning in the toddler years I fell in love with offering options. Would you like to put your clothes in the hamper now or after bath? Being able to choose helped her feel empowered. Encouraging problem solving can be tedious, especially when I can do something so much more quickly myself, but it’s really a hugely important skill to help her develop. For example, when she whines that she can’t reach the cup in the cabinet, I talk her through solving the problem herself. Kaitlyn takes to the problem solving thing more naturally, but some children like Hailey benefit from a little encouragement that they can in fact handle more situations themselves than they might believe.
- Having realistic expectations. Goodness knows I am not focused and motivated all the time, so it would be pretty unrealistic for me to expect my children to be. We all have off days!
- Recognizing the good things your kids are doing and praising them on that rather than focusing in on their shortcomings. This may be my favorite! It goes hand in hand with my other favorite quote: “promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate.” Correcting poor behavior comes more naturally to a lot of us parents, but I’ve seen more benefits in my house for celebrating positive actions rather than punishing bad choices.
- Limiting extrinsic motivators. I know this is hard. And I don’t believe you can parent by abstaining from outside motivation completely (and don’t think it’s all bad). However, opting for celebration over a true reward can help children recognize their feelings of self satisfaction and pride leading them to want to repeat the action (intrinsic) rather than having them focused on and motivated by the toy/treat/etc.
Wow, this is getting so long, but is something I could talk on and on about. It’s an area of research I’m incredibly interested in, especially with how it ties together with education. I believe if you can spark intrinsic motivation in children from very early on, they will grow up to be curious, contributing and happy members of your family and society.
What motivates your kids?
What are they naturally excited about?