Like most parents, I used to (okay, I sometimes still do) bribe my children. Constantly. As in: "I will give the first kid to have her room clean a whole sheet of new stickers."
Life is full of undesirable but important tasks; most of us don't feel a fire in our soul to put the laundry away, but we do it anyway, and as Heather commented last week, no one gives us a piece of candy for doing it. How do we teach our kids to do what we need them to do without bribing them?
You may have read the series I posted about forming good habits last year, which I've taken down and revised into this series of postings. Last year's advice about getting kids to do the boring stuff that they have to do, based on the neuroscience of reward systems was based on rewarding kids with things like stickers and gum. For the record, the program I put together was not at all easy, as suggested by this reader in response to my old series:
Good grief! Negotiating toys and sweets for behaviours!?? This is truly awful and lazy parenting. I couldn't disagree with you more…Dangling carrots is treating your children like mindless donkeys.
I don't think that any parent who is trying to help their kids get into good habits is awful and lazy; we parents dangle carrots because it works, not because we see them as unintelligent.
Social scientists have studied motivation in kids a lot. There are two types: researchers call self-motivation "intrinsic" drive—the desire to do something purely because of the pleasure we derive from the activity itself. On the other hand, we also do things for "extrinsic" reasons—not for the process or the activity, but for the outcome or reward. Kids often do their homework for the grade or the approval of their teacher, for example, rather than for the fun of learning something new.
Intrinsic motivation makes for greater happiness and success, particularly when it comes to academic life. Self-motivated kids achieve more, perceive themselves to be more competent, and are less anxious. Extrinsically motivated kids are more prone to depression. While intrinsic motivation is a particular form of joy, extrinsic motivation can lead to a particular form of unhappiness fueled by fear of failure or disappointment. Sadly, because girls tend to be more attuned to their external appearance and environment, research shows they tend to be more extrinsically motivated and thus are more likely to be depressed.
And despite their often dramatic short-term effect—the kid who leaps off the couch to walk the dog when ice cream is offered upon his return—rewards can actually have a detrimental effect over the medium and long-term. Although rewards get kids to comply with externally imposed requests and rules, ultimately we want kids to become self-motivated without our external goading. Orienting kids towards external rewards can cause them to lose touch with their own feelings and their own intrinsic motivation. A wide body of research shows that when kids find an activity or task that they inherently like doing—such as reading or helping another kid—and then an adult comes along and starts offering rewards for doing that activity, the external rewards have an undermining effect, making them like doing the activity less. They also decrease the likelihood that they will engage in the activity again when given the choice. (This negative impact of rewards is stronger with children than with adults, by the way.)
It makes sense not to reward kids for things that they already like doing. But what about when the task is not something kids want to do for the sheer joy of it? Next week I'll give you a simple step-by-step plan!
© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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