The Importance of the Intrinsic (featured on

*This article was featured in the “Perspectives” section of in March of 2013*

Most of us do it, even though we know it’s not the best parenting technique. But is bribing, rewarding, and threatening really all that bad? And if we can’t use rewards to motivate our children, what can we do?

Before we understand the pros and cons of bribery, we need to be clear on some of the basics of human behavior. There are essentially two ways that behavior can be managed in humans: external systems of control, and self-control through intrinsic motivation. When parents use bribes or punishment to enforce behavior expectations, we are applying an external system of control to our children. I do not think this is always a bad thing, although some other writers and researchers (Daniel Pink, for example) might feel otherwise. But a big problem with bribing that is not always made cute kid with lollipop and red tshirtclear is the opportunity cost. It’s not necessarily that bribes will ruin your child, but every time you resort to a bribe you are missing the opportunity to teach your child the real reason why he should choose a certain behavior. Usually a bribe is the quick, cheap* solution that takes the place of thoughtful child-centered teaching. (I use the word cheap only figuratively here, because the increasingly common practice of bribery has led parents today to spend 500% more money on their children than the parents of only one generation back!)

The thing with small children is that they are terrible feedback machines. It often takes dozens of times of being taught something before they internalize it. So time and again it can seem that what you’re saying is having no impact . But those little ears are listening and (slowly) processing, and learning. If bribes are the main motivator, they are not learning the real reason for the behavior. That’s why even the recent New York Times article critiquing bribery mentioned that if you need to bribe in a stressful situation, do it, but take time later on to debrief and talk about why the behavior was important.

An example: I’m in a store with my 3-year-old and he doesn’t want to stay in the cart. I tell him that he can eat a fruit strip if he stays seated. This is a bribe because I’m attaching the snack to a contingent behavior: sitting in the cart. (If I gave him the fruit strip with no strings attached, it would merely be a snack.) He still has no idea why I want him to sit there. If I take the time then (or later that day) to explain that we need to get some groceries at the store to cook for the meals we will eat this week, and that if he is walking around he might get bumped into by another cart, he might start to understand. It’s unrealistic to expect him to immediately respond with an “OK!” each time I explain something, but it’s a learning process. Every time I expect a behavior I have the opportunity to teach him about why the behavior is important. If I miss too many of those opportunities, he will behave in certain ways only to get a reward, and I will have to constantly control his behavior with those rewards. Taking the time to teach may be more exhausting in the very short term, but it will allow my child to start managing himself, and that will make my job MUCH easier.
Think back to the newborn days for a moment (whether they were years or minutes ago). Newborns learn constantly! It’s amazing to see a little squirming, blinking blob start to smile, suck on fingers, grab for things, mimic sounds, all in the course of weeks. This learning takes place with NO coercion, no curriculum, no rewards, no structure. We don’t have to “train” children to take an interest in toys, start smiling, or try to talk. They do it naturally. This is the essence of intrinsic motivation. It’s achievement without external controls, learning just for the joy of it, not to please anyone else or get any compensation. Young children also have a great deal of this innate motivation…unless we condition them out of it! Providing rewards for an activity that is pleasurable in-and-of itself actually reduces the desire a child will have to complete it in the future. The external reward distracts from the intrinsic enjoyment, and the strongest motivator for any behavior becomes diminished.

Teaching children about the reasons behind behavior expectations is key to developing their internal motivation, but another key piece is helping them recognize the feelings that are attached to their behaviors. Babies do things that feel good, and for toddlers and preschoolers we can make this connection explicit. Asking questions like “Was that fun to get all the pieces of the puzzle to fit together?” How do you feel when you use the potty all by yourself?” or “Are you feeling proud that you made your room look so clean?” can put the focus on the child’s emotional experience and help them recognize that doing the right thing makes them happier, and that happiness is the best reward.

A primary goal of developing intrinsic motivation in children is to help them function as responsible adults in the future (as opposed to entitled adults who shy away from the hard work it takes to achieve success). Grown-ups who have learned the rationale behind decisions are typically good decision-makers themselves, and are likely to have an easier time achieving in school, finding a good life partner, and succeeding in a career. But if that long-term view seems a bit far off, focus on how much better behaved your children will be now if you help them develop their intrinsic motivation, and how much more you can enjoy parenthood when you aren’t the only one doing the hard work.

A great way to start incorporating the intrinsic in your parenting is to focus on effort, not performance. We’ve all learned that giving your child lots of praise will boost their self-esteem and make them happier and higher-achieving. But the Giving dad a helping handcommon practice of telling our children that they are “smart” or making a big deal out of their skills is not always the most effective way to empower them. As a classroom teacher, I can’t tell you how many times I worked with students who were very intelligent, but who struggled to complete assignments or maintain their grades.

You may indeed have a child who is fabulously smart and does amazing things. Congratulations! But if you want her to become an adult who reaches her potential for success, you may want to draw more attention to her EFFORT than her smarts. Future success is actually correlated less with raw intelligence, and more with the ability to stick with difficult tasks. Whatever passion your child will grow up to pursue, he will probably need to work at it a lot to be excellent, even if he has lots of innate talent. The folks who can put in the time without being discouraged (or worse, expecting it to come easily because they are so “smart”), are those who tend to go the farthest in life.

A second rule worth following if you want your children to start managing themselves is to stop helping them so much. All children have a need to achieve. It’s called “mastery motivation” or “development of competence” in research on child development, but most parents know it as pride. The priceless grin on your child’s face as he gets that tall block tower to stay standing for the first time needs no theoretical explanation. But in our need to feel needed, many of us sabotage opportunities for more pride-building experiences by doing too much for our kids. Many two and three-year-olds can learn to put on and take off their shoes or other articles of clothing, spread peanut butter or cream cheese on iStock_000011477803Smalla cracker, use a napkin and mirror to clean their face, carry a small bag of groceries, load or unload small plates in the dishwasher, put wet clothes from a basket into the dryer, etc. Not only do such activities provide a valuable lesson in all the work that goes into running a household, they develop motor skills, concentration, and PRIDE! Children who can do lots of things for themselves tend to be happier and more engaged in learning. So take account of all the little tasks that your children can learn to do around the house. It will make everyone happier if the parents relinquish some responsibilities and the children take them on.
We all do things in the moment that we aren’t proud of, during those times when parenting feels like survival. But changing the pattern of those little moments can be a very big change in the life of your child! Shifting motivations away from wanting treats and prizes, and toward wanting to feel good about doing the right thing is a dramatic change in the kind of person you are helping to create. And when we help our children become better people, we can’t help but become better people ourselves along the way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s