How to Develop Intrinsic Motivation in Your Child

“I pick up his phone and he behaves for three days and then goes back to his shitty behavior again. I don’t understand why he just … doesn’t study ! “

My ex talked about our 13-year-old son and I totally sympathized with his disappointment. Not only because of this particular unwanted behavior – sometimes it seems like every aspect of our children’s discipline is redundant and endless, like Sisyphus in Hades pushing his boulder up a hill, only to keep it rolling down again and again, again and again for all eternity … Please let this torture end.

Why aren’t the consequences we set for our children absorbed immediately into their brains and prevent them from repeating unwanted behaviors? And, for that matter, why doesn’t positive reinforcement generate more repetition of good behavior?

The type of motivation matters

Part of the answer has to do with the type of motivation we instill. Much of the discipline we provide for our children has to do with extrinsic motivation. Whether it’s backfiring unwanted behavior or positive reinforcement of desired behavior, it’s still consequence-based motivation.

The technical term for this is extrinsic motivation. This type of reward-oriented motivation does have its place in our lives, it can produce the desired results and can be a powerful motivator. For most of us, this is the reason we pay taxes — we want to avoid the consequences of paying huge fines to the government. However, I want more for my children than for their behavior to be dictated by seeking rewards or avoiding punishment.

The motivation that I want to dominate in children’s decision-making is intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, and it’s not about seeking rewards in exchange for certain behaviors. Behavior itself is a reward.

Internal and external motivation

Consider your child’s motivation to get good grades. An external motivator would be to offer your child cash or some other reward for every A he earns. Your child may be doing work to earn A’s, but he may be doing it in order to earn rewards for grades, not grades themselves.

On the other hand, if they are intrinsically motivated, they will study hard because the sense of accomplishment feels great to them, or because they are really interested in the material, or at least in the task of studying the material.

This does not mean that parents should give up all awards. Psychology professor Vanessa Lobu writes for Psychology Today that rewards should simply be used more strategically:

If you want to promote intrinsic motivation — if you want to teach your children that learning in school or helping others is fun in its own right — using rewards may be the wrong strategy. Again, this does not mean that the rewards are always bad. When I was potty training my son, we showered him with marmalade and praised him for a successful visit to the toilet. We weren’t always worried about teaching my son to have the intrinsic motivation to pee, as everyone eventually learns to pee.

It is also important to avoid what is called the “ over-justification effect, ” where behaviors or activities that are already internally motivated are also externally rewarded. This can reduce intrinsic motivation, making what used to feel like a game suddenly feel more like work.

An example of this was shown in a study by researcher E.L. Deci ; after participants were paid for their efforts to complete the puzzle, they worked less on the puzzle in a subsequent unpaid setting than the always unpaid control group that worked on the puzzle, seemingly for fun.

This is how you do it

Praise effort and achievement, not personality

In the report card example, you might say, “This mark shows me that you studied hard and turned in all your work!” Calling a child talented or smart is an external motivator, and a reward is an implied favorable comparison with others. Children who are taught to value effort rather than results are more likely to keep trying when faced with difficulties.

Model your own intrinsic motivation

A good work ethic is intrinsically motivated. To arrive on time, because it is pleasant to think of others, is an intrinsic motivation. A favorite hobby has intrinsic motivation. Make sure your kids can see these things.

On the other hand, if you only limit speed when the cop is with you, your kids will see that you have an extrinsic motivation to obey the law. If you are only kind to people who can give you what you want, your kids will notice it too. Through our behavior, we can show our children the satisfaction that comes from intrinsic motivation.

Talk about it. Lot

Rewards and consequences are important tools in helping our children to behave correctly and independently. But at the same time, we must explain why these consequences take place. Share your experience of achieving goals based on your own inner motivation and how these successes are often more satisfying than direct pursuit of reward. Repetition is necessary here because, unlike material external motivators, internal motivation is more difficult to understand. This requires more attention.

When my son’s father talked about his disappointment, I sympathized with him. Discipline can be unnecessary and ungrateful. But I reminded him that even though our son may occasionally chat or have a shitty attitude, he is more often than not polite, considerate and generous. This is because over the years we have modeled this behavior and discussed why it matters. It’s not that he’s holding his phone in his hands. It’s about being a good person.

So, yes, we pick up his phone when he can’t control his attitude. But the older he gets, the more I see him independently, given how his words and actions affect others. And he does not receive any reward from this, except for his own self-esteem.


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