You want your child to behave in a certain way, perform to a particular standard (say, in school), or simply not embarrass you with a tantrum in the grocery store aisle. But how to motivate kids who don’t want to comply? I have one kid who is motivated simply by guilt…he’s a parent pleaser and a rule follower, bless his heart. I have another child, however, who will not do anything he doesn’t want to do. Period. There’s not motivating him…or is there?
In the world of behavioral science, there are two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.
- Intrinsic motivation = doing an activity for its inherent enjoyment.
- Extrinsic motivation = doing an activity, not for its inherent enjoyment but instead for a separable outcome.
We all understand intrinsic motivation: we are motivated to eat that piece of cake because it tastes great. Your kid is motivated to play video games because it’s pleasurable to him. Maybe, your child with ASD is motivated to rock in her chair because it’s self-soothing.
Every one of us performs to a higher standard when we’re motivated intrinsically. For example, I may perform just fine at my job, but when I’m off-duty and pursuing a passion of mine, my motivation is higher. I am more motivated to make a special dinner (if I enjoy cooking) than I am to clean the bathroom.
Extrinsic motivation usually results in lower success rates. None of us like to do things simply because we are told we must, and that includes our kids.
So how to motivate kids? Put aside rewards charts, ‘carrot and stick’ methods, and punishment in favor of intrinsic motivation.
Remember, in order for intrinsic motivation to work, your child has to be doing an activity purely (or at least primarily) for its own sake or its own enjoyment. External rewards and punishment will not inspire someone to become intrinsically motivated. Period.
But none of us will be intrinsically motivated ALL the time, so how to motivate kids when there’s no intrinsic warm-and-fuzzy feeling in sight? In other words, how to motivate kids to do their homework, brush their teeth, go to bed, and not talk back? Rewards, charts, and bribery will work SOME of the time, but usually not for long. Sometimes, you HAVE to use extrinsic motivation.
How to use extrinsic motivation in ways that actually work:
Stop trying to make kids enjoy an activity they simply don’t.
We’ve all been there: ‘Look, it’s fun to brush your teeth! It’s like a little airplane going into your mouth!’ Yeah…kids don’t buy this, do they? If an activity is simply no fun, no amount of cheerleading will make them like it for its own sake. Can you make SOME tasks more fun, and therefore intrinsically motivating? Yes, of course! For example, you can make math homework more fun by turning it into a game, or you can make bathtime more fun by adding toys. But sometimes, no amount of effort will make a kid love to do something for its own intrinsic value.
Don’t try to control behavior with unrelated incentives.
You know what I’m talking about: ‘if you finish this math worksheet, you can have a cookie’. It’s classic bribery, and yeah, sometimes it works for a little while, but it will never cause a kid to intrinsically enjoy something. And remember, intrinsic motivation is the top-shelf variety we’re going for. Instead of controlling your child with promises, punishments, or bribes, give your child autonomy. Being autonomous is essential for intrinsic motivation. It’s a key ingredient. An example of offering autonomy and therefore possibly converting a kid from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic: ‘You can do your math worksheet before dinner or after dessert. Which would you prefer?’
Emphasize the concept that success or mastery can be its own reward.
Mastery of a skill or behavior can lead to autonomy in its own way, so kids can become intrinsically motivated when they realize that by doing the thing they are resisting, they will gain independence, autonomy, or elevated privilege. For example, your kid may not feel motivated to learn to read until realizing that readers get to stay up later each evening than younger siblings. Or, as another example, your child may not feel motivated to learn to ride a bike until realizing that bike riders get to play more independently with friends.
So, how to motivate kids? Nurture intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic!