Of course, we are all highly motivated to do things that we find pleasant, interesting and fun. We are motivated because we enjoy it. Much of what we are required to do in life though – including a huge amount of what children are required to do – cannot be described as enjoyable or exciting. Study, chores, being quiet, not picking your nose or not picking on your siblings – where’s the fun in that? To do these behaviours requires extrinsic motivation – a motivation that comes from outside the person. Sometimes that extrinsic motivation is avoiding a negative consequence like disapproval or a punishment from a parent, at other times it will be a reward that makes the activity worthwhile.
Must we threaten and bribe our children all their lives? No!
Fortunately, children can ‘internalise’ motivation – the motivation moves from outside the child to inside their head. If a child comes to agree whole-heartedly with the reasons for the task, they will perform in a self-motivated manner, even if the task itself is not interesting or pleasant. They are motivated because their behaviour has some value to them, or it fits with their values or is part of who they are.
For example, if a child believes tidying up is a good and right thing to do, and they see themselves as a ‘tidy’ person, the behaviour no longer requires some extrinsic penalty or reward – it has become internalised. They do what is required because they truly want to do it, even if it is hard or boring.
So there’s the tip – connect children with the value behind the chore – “Listen to you practice – that’s beautiful music you are making.” “Wow, this room looks so good when you’ve cleaned it! You must really enjoy being able to make it look this good”. “Thanks for helping with the shopping. It’s great that we are a team.”
By John Cowan, Parenting Place
Improving and equipping families to thrive.
Read more from John and Parenting place here.