Monday, December 3, 2012

How Do You Motivate Your Kids?

One super-duper awesome benefit of being married to a graduate student was getting to be first in line to proofread scores of graduate papers during his studies.  There’s nothing as exciting as a Tuesday night spent slogging through a twenty-page report on international business models, especially when your usual reading fare is more related to Beezus and Ramona.

But it was during a proofreading session on motivation and employee management that I had a parenting epiphany.  My husband’s research paper outlined the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.  Extrinsic motivation included things like monetary bonuses, praise, and promotions: things that rely upon external forces.  Intrinsic motivation was based within the employee: pride in work, satisfaction from overcoming a challenge, fulfillment of personal goals.  His paper reached the conclusion that employers would have a happier workforce if they could enable their employees to tap into those intrinsic forces. 
Everyone knows that a happy workforce is a productive workforce, and I began thinking about how much this matched up with what I knew about kids.  When kids are happy, they’re easy to manage.  They’re fun and interesting and willing to try new things.  When they’re bossed and bribed and forced into submission, they grow bitter and resentful. 
Sure, you can tempt a child to clean his room in response to the promise of a reward, but the motivation to work vanishes when the external force is removed.  He might require ever-increasing rewards in order to complete the same job, erasing any gains in personal responsibility.
The need for internal motivation carries over into the rest of their lives, too.  We’re raising kids who will be responsible for finishing homework, making it to school on time, and setting and completing personal goals to further their lives.  How can they prepare for the world if all they know is extrinsic motivation at home?  Sometimes there’s no other reward for taking care of boring bits of business than the relief of knowing you’ve finished the job. 
Our goal should be to teach our kids satisfaction within themselves, not dependent upon how their parents, friends, or teachers reward them, whether it’s with words of praise or acceptance into the cool clique.
In the business world, this means granting employees more responsibility and finding ways for them to feel necessary and useful.  But how does it translate with families? 
Intrinsic motivation can be founded in an environment of acceptance.  Parents sometimes fall into the habit of seeing our children for who we want them to be, rather than for who they actually are.  By noticing their quirks and traits and building them into strengths, instead of hacking away at their burgeoning personalities, we teach our kids that they’re worthy of notice.  That their decisions have merit and their capabilities are valid. 
Next, we can add a second vital element: praise.  I don’t mean a constant stream of reassurance or worthless ‘Good job!’ exclamations.  I mean deep, thoughtful attention to detail.  Start noticing the specific ways your child worked towards a goal, and mention them.  Use big words like perseverance, teamwork, and dedication; it will open up a new avenue of showing our kids that their achievements are meaningful. 
When our kids recognize their personal values and passions as important, they’ll start tapping into their intrinsic motivators.  They’ll feel empowered to be productive, creative, and curious.  You’ll have laid the foundations for a human being who won’t require ever-increasing returns in order to feel motivated to tackle the work of life. 


  1. I believe so much is what you're saying. The problem is that in the short term, extrinsic motivation is so much quicker and easier. So yes, I offer a treat of some sort now and then, but I certainly praise determination, persistence, dedication and just good old hard work.

    1. I am sitting right beside you in that boat, Kate. It's just such a quick fix to motivate them with a treat or even the threat of punishment. But I'm trying to reign in those tendencies!

  2. Learning about life through business. I like it! :-)

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  4. I shot right back here after reading the first sentence of today's post - cause, no...somehow I missed this. And I have MANY many thoughts about this...for several reasons. I admit - even this late in life and WITH some pretty healthy self awareness that's developed over the past decade, to still being more extrinsically than intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic is catching up - but oh boy what a battle! I eventually left the church that I worshiped with {and worked for} for over twenty years because I believe they/we had warped spirituality into a very extrinsically motivated lifestyle. AND - because as a parent I was determined NOT to "make" kids that were just like me in this way! This is an uphill battle in a society (academic society included) that has quite the performance orientation. I will quickly say, that with kids, I think developing the inner stuff needs that atmosphere of acceptance that you mentioned. I think we need to be willing to let them fail - especially as they get older - which, let me tell ya, gets harder the older they get...ok off to read today's piece!


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?