Let me be the first to admit that I’ve fallen into the bribery pit many times as a parent. That pack of Pokémon cards if you sit still in the dentist chair, that pop if you just pee in the toilet all day. One can call them bribes, while another may call them rewards or incentives. And let’s be honest; for children who are still developing the ability to be internally motivated, much of their motivation lies in the external “things” they believe they will get access to if they engage in a certain behavior.
As a behavior specialist, I am a huge endorser of positive reinforcement strategies and “thinking outside the box” to motivate children who struggle with intrinsic motivation. Years of research on extrinsic rewards has shown that the use of rewards increases the likelihood that a certain behavior will be repeated. These findings can make it tempting for us to justify the constant use of external rewards with our children.
However, what happens if we only rely on external incentives to motivation children? Can we really expect them to learn to be self-motivated if we constantly present them with external rewards?
In reality, focusing too much on the external incentives that can be “won” for doing something can actually reduce intrinsic motivation (Kreps, 1997). Garth Sundem, author of Your Daily Brain, says that offering incentives for an activity that a child already highly prefers may actually even make it less likely that the child will want to continue the activity in the future. (1)
So while tangible rewards and positive verbal praise may be important for motiving children to learn and grow, as parents we should also recognize our role in encouraging our children to want to learn and grow, without the expectation that they will get something from us in return.
Here are five effective strategies to helping a child develop self-motivation.
Recognize the self-motivation your child already has
Some activities our children engage in provide their own inherent reward, so motivation to keep doing them is not contingent on an external reward. Given a choice, what would your child do in their free time? Will they pick up a basketball or hit a baseball in the backyard? Will they pick up a book or build something with Legos? Think about that chosen activity and then talk to your child about the feeling or emotions they experience when engaging in that activity. Perhaps it is a sense of pride that they have a special talent, or that it simply makes them happy to know they are really good at a specific skill. Having that conversation will help your child identify and recognize the feeling that makes that skill or activity so enjoyable to them.
Help set goals
Focus on one area and talk to your child about their goals in that area. Offer suggestions, but keep in mind that if your child feels it’s too lofty, they may be less motivated to even try to achieve it. This may mean breaking down a long term goal into much smaller and more achievable goals. Write them down or have or have your child write them down. Suggest that they draw pictures of themselves achieving the goals. Make the goals as concrete as possible by making them visual and then hang them somewhere that your child can see them on a daily basis. Setting goals does not mean that there needs to be a special reward attached to the achievement of the goal. Instead, focus on how the reward is the confidence and feeling they get when they know they are making progress.
Children are often more inclined to be intrinsically motivated if they feel they have some control over how they are accomplishing a goal (2). This may mean presenting a number of areas to a child and allowing them to make the choice as to what area they want to create goals in. This may also mean giving them choices on how they are going to accomplish those goals or when they are going to work on them.
Watch your reaction
Lack of motivation can be frustrating. When we are faced with an unmotivated child, we may attempt to motivate him by methods that stem from our own anxiety and forget that it’s impossible to make someone care (3). Scolding, reprimanding, yelling and nagging are likely not going to encourage the development of intrinsic motivation. When children learn that a certain behavior will exhibit a negative reaction from you, it’s likely you will see them resist even more. Even for the child who will comply in order to avoid the negative reaction, the end result is still not one in which self-motivation is developed.
Make them the teachers
My 8-year-old son loves to try to “teach” his siblings. Usually that means all three of them in the backyard, with my son patiently attempting to teach his 2 year-old brother and 3 year-old sister how to throw a football or swing a bat. His internal motivation in sports naturally compels him to attempt to teach his siblings to also learn those skills as well. Play off of a child’s strengths by setting up scenarios in which they can “teach” those skills to their siblings, or even to you… and then extend those scenarios to skills they are not as strong in. Encourage the child (like my son) who has strengths in sports but is not as confident in reading to teach their siblings how to throw a ball, but also read to his siblings at night.
The success of our children is always a beautiful thing. When that success is due to the internal motivation of our child, the success is even more beautiful to watch. However, children are not naturally programmed to be intrinsically motivated in every area of their growth. As parents, we can encourage them to take hold of their own success by recognizing and striving for the internal feelings and emotions obtained when goals are reached.
Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Incentives, found in The American Economic Review, vol. 87, no. 2 (May 1997), 359-364 by David Kreps