Most parents know that getting kids to do things on their own—be it homework, chores, or helping around the house—might be a struggle. You might even be asking yourself, Ugh, how do I motivate them to do anything? on a regular basis. This constant battle is no fun for anyone.
So, finding a way to authentically motivate kids becomes paramount. However, “Motivation is complicated and has many influences,” Aliza Pressman, Ph.D., co-founding director and director of clinical programming for the Mount Sinai Parenting Center tells us. And it turns out that there are technically two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.
What do these mean, how can they help kids get the job done, and is there a style that’s more effective? Well, we spoke to an expert to find out.
Of course, there are valid reasons that you may encourage kids by dangling a prize in front of them—and, of course, actions have consequences, so often you may need to discipline them when they misbehave. Not to mention, rewards can offer a signal to your kid that they did a good job and you are proud of them, which is a good thing, no?
“When you do not care if the child internalizes the motivation for doing something, for example, you just really want them to go to bed and stay in bed because you are so tired! You can set up a rewards system if you are OK that they aren’t going to care about actually doing something,” says Pressman. “Also if there is no concern that in the long run, they will be stuck needing extrinsic rewards in order to do something.”
However, the problem comes up when the motivation ends there. Kids, and people in general, can only operate so well if their validation comes solely from the outside. This, too, is backed up by research: In one study, toddlers were given rewards after playing with a toy—a toy they previously expressed interest in. After they were given said reward, they became less interested in the toy that they were previously interested in.
Not only that, but if you continually offer external rewards for positive behavior, you may be sending the wrong signal to your kids as they grow up: that good behavior always gets you an award—and that’s simply not the way life works. This is why experts encourage you to help build intrinsic motivation when you can.
So the problem is it’s challenging to develop intrinsic motivation. Few people naturally enjoy tidying up, no? So how can you get kids to feel internal validation when said task isn’t always appealing?
“Motivation comes from a set of neurochemical networks that develop over time, as a result of the experiences we have,” says Pressman, noting that you can develop motivation through these experiences. “The best way to sustain motivation is to support internal drivers with the right kind of external feedback: not a lot of it, focused on process, and remember that if a child is fully internally motivated, don’t interrupt it much with your external commentary or they might lose sight of their internal drive.”