“Kids who are intrinsically motivated engage in a behavior because it’s personally rewarding. They like doing it.”
Are you bribing your kids with chocolate, stickers, and endless hours of screen time to do schoolwork, household chores, or just to get out of your hair for a few minutes? Rewards are what psychologists call extrinsic motivators, praise or tangible goods that elicit an action. Some imply that extrinsic motivation is bad; but it can be very helpful. When well-constructed, extrinsic motivators can enhance a kid’s productivity. However, research shows that when behavior is no longer rewarded, there’s a good chance that it cannot be sustained or that kids will respond to a parent’s request by saying, “what will you give me to do that.”
Kids who are intrinsically motivated engage in a behavior because it’s personally rewarding. They like doing it. Intrinsic motivation encourages self-determination, the ability to make choices and manage their own life and it may yield longer lasting results.
Gold stars and high fives are important in supporting productive struggle and validating a kid’s emerging identity. Trying a process like shifting strategy or persisting through a difficulty are worth praising, regardless of the success of the final outcome. Here praise may even increase their enjoyment of the task.
Consider these questions before using rewards long term.
- Are you motivating a beneficial behavior, like persistence or curiosity, or just handing out treats as rewards for compliance?
- Will you need to increase the value of the reward to sustain the behavior?
- Are you replacing an internal source of motivation with an external one?
Extrinsic motivation has a positive impact when it boosts a kid’s feeling of competence after doing good work. Choose two or three things they’ve accomplished while completing a task to praise. This way you are not simply rewarding the kid, you’re rewarding their effort. For instance, if they’ve organized their sock drawer well, or set goals to finish school work, these should be recognized.
Here are ways to balance extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
- Get involved. Let your kid know you’re available and interested in what they’re doing.
- Use reinforcement. Rather than bribing a kid to do schoolwork, use rewarding activities after they’ve completed one of their goals. These don’t have to be tangible items like candy. Kids respond well to social reinforcers like praise, hugs, and high fives.
- Reward the effort, not the outcome. Respect their effort and their willingness to follow through, even when it gets tough.
- Keep long-term goals in mind. This works well with teens who aspire to bigger things like attaining a driver’s license or going to college.
- Let them make mistakes. It’s about the process, not the product. They’re learning as they re-evaluate and try new strategies. Acknowledge their effort.
- Lend a hand when appropriate. Sometimes a task is just too big for a kid. That’s the time to step in and help out to get a job done.