Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Many parents are concerned about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, but aren’t sure how parents can help their child tune in to his or her own desire to do things, rather than look for outside motivation or rewards.   The benefits are obvious.  We want our children to internalize positive behavior, values, and beliefs so these become a part of the child.  The child whose actions are motivated by the desire for a reward, or to avoid a punishment, is going to perform these actions only when the reward, or the punishment, is there.  Those choices don’t become a part of his value system, a part of his sense of self.  He doesn’t build his sense of self- responsibility for his actions and decisions.  He doesn’t take one more step toward being “self-governing." So what can parents do to help?  Don’t use rewards and punishments!  Instead:

When your child has done well, rather than rewarding good behavior with praise, treats or privileges, encourage the child to internalize the pride in his positive choices and actions by supporting him with comments like:

You painted trees, and flowers down here, and blue birds!

It feels good to help out a friend who’s in trouble.

You got frustrated, but you came back to it and finished the job.

You got all your homework done with time to spare.  That must feel good!

The idea is to be sure your responses focus on the meaning to the child by describing his actions in specific details, highlighting his own sense of accomplishment and pointing out how his actions reflect positive values.  Rather than your words being a reward, you want your words to spur the child to tune in to his own internal sense of satisfaction, and, in effect, reward himself. The trick is to respond in a way that the child feels good about what he did, not what you said.  A person who looks for reward from within will make the right choices all by himself.  A person from without comes to see the reward as the reason for an action, (whether it started out to be or not!), and is less likely to make the effort when there’s no reward available.

When a problem comes up, focus first on solutions that work for you and your child.  Rather than threatening or attempting to manipulate your child, discuss the problem and the options with him openly and honestly.  He’ll see the values and principles that guide your decision making, and see himself as an active and responsible decision-maker as well.  When follow-up action is necessary (necessary meaning you haven’t been able to solve the problem any other way, not necessary meaning you want your child to suffer a little “to understand how serious the situation is”), use logical consequences rather than punishment.

You may wear your helmet when you ride your bike, or I’ll need to ask you not to ride, because I need to keep you safe.

You may sit quietly at the movie, or we’ll need to leave the theater, because other people’s rights need to be protected.

You guys can clean the rat’s cage twice a week, or we’ll have to give the rat away to a good home, because somebody’s got to make sure he’s being properly cared for.

You may return my tools promptly and clean, or I won’t loan them out anymore, because I’ve got to keep them in good shape.

The emphasis is on the child’s choosing to be responsible, or allowing you to take responsibility instead.  Allow the child to help you decide on appropriate consequences, and on how long it will be until he’s ready to try again.  The idea is to focus on seeing that things are taken care or, not on “making the child pay” for misbehavior by suffering a punishment.  Punishments leave the child ready to sneak or lie to avoid punishment, but not to see it as their job to take responsibility.  Worse, when we’re degrading or angry as we give the punishment, we make a child feel defensive.  A defensive person blames someone else for the mistake, not himself.  For a child so see his own responsibility for a mistake, and to internalize the desire to do better next time, parent’s responses must be calm, non-blaming, and focused on problem-solving and responsibility.

The more often you remember to avoid rewards and instead help your child’s own good feelings be his reward, the more often you avoid threats and punishments and instead focus on solutions and responsibility-focused consequences, the more you are building your child’s ability to be intrinsically motivated, the kind of person who’s guided not by desire for gain from outside, but by principles, values and a sense of responsibility.

Justine Saffir, Co-Director Westside Preschool