Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear. —H.A. Dorfman
After much background material about why I was using material rewards before (habit + compelling neuroscientific theory) and why I've changed my thinking (much more well-established research about the perils of rewards in the long-run), here is my first suggestion for what to replace rewards with. More to come, but this specific kind of encouragement has been revolutionary in my household. I had to make up a mnemonic device for myself so that I could remember all 3 components at first, but I'm happy to report that this science-tested encouragement is now rolling off my tongue almost as easily as "If you brush your teeth now, I'll give you an extra star on your chart for being so speedy!"
Psychologists have tested a specific kind of encouragement and found that it is the best way to motivate kids over the long run—far better than offering them a piece of candy. Here is how to support your kids' self-motivation when you're asking them to do tedious (but necessary) tasks.
- Show empathy before you finish making your request. This step was life-changing—okay, maybe just habit-changing—for my family. One night I wanted Molly to go brush her teeth, and I'd asked her a thousand times already. Then I thought: oh yah, express empathy. I said, "Molly, I know you don't really want to, but you need to go brush your teeth right now." When there was no response I realized that I didn't know why she was resisting, so I couldn't really empathize. I simply asked her: "Molly, why don't you want to go brush your teeth?" Her response was that she didn't want to go downstairs by herself (there were no lights on, and it had gotten dark), and that she wanted to be with me. So I said: "I can understand why you don't want to go downstairs in the dark, and I want to be with you, too. But I need you to go brush your teeth." To which she replied: "If you understand, why don't you just come with me?" I did NOT reply that I was trying to save all of about 2 minutes by having her brush her teeth alone while I did something else—I just went with her. And she brushed her teeth gleefully. Seriously.
- Offer meaningful rationales. Why are you asking your kids to do that seemingly unimportant task? I am getting into the habit of offering positive rationales like: "Please go brush your teeth so they feel clean and healthy today." This is much more motivating to them than some version of "Please do it because I've asked you to do it 200 times."
- Imply that they have a choice rather than of using "controlling language." Shocking but true: my bossiness does not motivate my kids. It IS a lot easier to just tell my kids what I need them to do, as in: "Please empty the dishwasher. Now." Less controlling language would be "What I propose is…" or "If you choose to," or "It would be extremely helpful if you…" At first I thought, well, that isn't going to work—my kids will definitely reject the task if given a choice like this. But then I realized I had nothing to lose: they were already rejecting the tasks, repeatedly. Most kids know that they are eventually going to end up doing most of what we ask them to do—it isn't really an option not to brush their teeth or not do their homework. When we avoid using directives and controlling language, ("You should do…" or "What you have to do now…") they have a lot less to resist, and thus offer a lot less resistance.
Here is the great thing: research shows that when we encourage kids to do a blindingly boring task with empathy, rationale, and non-controlling language, they feel happier when they are performing the task than they would if we'd offered them a material reward. That happiness they feel IS the reward. Moreover, these kids tend to be no less likely to perform the task than those who were offered material rewards instead. And kids motivated with empathy, rationale, and choice learn that just because something is boring and unfun doesn't mean that it isn't important.
Here's how I remembered what to do in the heat of the moment with my kids: The 3 steps are ERN (Empathy, Rationale, Non-controlling language). Before I was motivating them to EARN a reward; now I motivate them with ERN encouragement. If you can think of something better, please post it in the comments or send me an email!
Here is how I would summarize the last three postings: Rewards work in the short-term because they provide us with a nice feel-good Dopamine hit. But unfortunately, rewards tend to have a negative effect on kids' motivation over the long-term. The answer is to motivate kids to do those not-so-fun things that are necessary in life with the particular kind of encouragement described above. That way, their brains deliver those feel-good chemicals in response to their feelings of mastery and autonomy (intrinsic motivation) rather than in response to receiving a material reward (extrinsic motivation).
Up next week: a new habit tracking chart, and more on helping kids break bad habits and replace them with good ones. Until then, please post your suggestions and feedback about the ERN method!
Key Reference: Joussemet, M., Koestner, R., Lekes, N., Houlfort, N. (2004). Introducing Uninteresting Tasks to Children: A Comparison of the Effects of Rewards and Autonomy Support. Journal of Personality, 72(1), 139-66.
For more references, click here.
© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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