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How to Motivate Kids – and Why Rewards aren’t the Answer

By: Dr Justin Coulson

How do you motivate kids? It may be one of the biggest struggles parents and teachers experience. We remind them to clean their room or do their schoolwork. They reply that it’s too hard. We cajole them to turn off their screens and play outside or read a book. They reply that it’s boring. We plead with them to do their chores and they whine, procrastinate and even ignore us.

The common trope, repeated about the rising generation by the older generation for… well, generations, is that we’re raising a spoilt, entitled, self-absorbed and narcissistic generation; that kids are lazy, obstinate and ill disciplined. And the common solution: we need to motivate them.

So how do we motivate our kids?

Western society has adopted a standard response to this question. We motivate with carrots and sticks. The legacy of psychology’s founding fathers and early influencers (such as John Watson and B. F. Skinnercasts a long shadow over our view of motivation. The answer, they say, is a token economy.

A ‘token economy’ is simply a system of reward or punishmentFirst used in a controlled setting in the early 1960s, it relies on being given a reward as a reinforcement of good behaviour, and a punishment as reinforcement of bad behaviour.

While parents punish their children every day with time-out, withdrawal of privileges and even smacking, the stick has fallen out of favour. Today the focus is on the carrot, or the rewards. Reward charts proliferate – stuck to our walls, cupboard doors and refrigerators like gum to the bottom of a shoe. ‘Do as I say and I’ll give you a star. Get enough stars and I’ll give you a goody.’ That’s the ‘carrot’. The ‘stick’ is still there in the carrot though. Implicit in the promise of reward is the threat of punishment.

The Victorian Government has recently determined that the best way to motivate students to attend school and do schoolwork is with carrots. They are offering students incentives. It seems much sweeter than the threat of punishment.

The idea resonates with people. Offering bribes (or threats) usually leads to desired behaviour. For example:

  • The government finds kids aren’t studying. They offer rewards and school attendance, engagement and achievement increase.
  • A parent wants to encourage her kids to clean their rooms but measures room cleaning behaviour over a two-week period and discovers that room cleaning is at zero, even with nagging. It just doesn’t happen. Mum implements a reward system to ‘motivate’ better behaviour. After a few weeks of measurement, she finds that room cleaning behaviour has increased enormously. Back-slapping and high-fives ensue. It MUST be working!

Eventually, however, one of two things usually happen.

First, the reward system is taken away. Suddenly school attendance and achievement drop off. The room cleaning behaviour stops. The reward system starts again and results improve.

Surely this proves that a reward system will motivate our children to do what we want them to do?

Au contraire. The fact that a token, bribe or threat gets a child (or a student or an employee) to engage in a specific behaviour only when the reward is offered or the punishment is threatened highlights that we have not solved the motivation issue at all. They’re not motivated to do the task one bit. That’s why we need to keep offering rewards. Rewards may effectively control children’s behaviour in the immediate context, but studies show that they can (and regularly do) have negative consequences for children’s ongoing interest and engagement, motivation and even wellbeing.

As an aside, many parents have emphasised rewards and discovered that children become remarkably creative in their attempts to minimise the efforts required to gain their reward. ‘Clean your room and I’ll give you five bucks’, often leads to a quick job where clothes are shoved under beds or other convenient hidey-holes. Shortcuts are taken. Our kids’ central focus becomes ‘what’s in it for me?’ There’s no internal motivation for the task at all. The motivation is to get the goody.

The same thing has happened where rewards are employed in education, for example, receiving pizza vouchers for reading books. Sure, more books are read. But the quality of the books chosen is low. Short books. Fewer pages. Lower comprehension. Polemic writer, Alfie Kohn, highlights that ‘rewards motivate us to chase rewards.’

The second reliable outcome of rewarding people is that the reward eventually becomes insufficient. Our children become habituated to the reward. Entitlement ensues. Then their expectation increases. ‘I want more.’

The ‘free-choice’ experimental paradigm is often utilised to discover what motivates and what doesn’t. A large number of studies have divided participants into groups where one group receives a reward for participating (or completing or succeeding) in an activity, whereas another group does not. (People in each group are unaware that others are receiving (or not receiving) a reward). Results are measured, and then the participant is given a ‘free choice’ period where they can choose to continue with the activity or engage with other enticing activity options.

In over 30 years of research, people of all ages, including infants, toddlers, school children, adolescents, college students and adults, have consistently shown that rewards reduce interest in continuing with the task. That is, once a reward is received, there’s no motivation to keep participating. Motivation is high for those who are rewarded for participating – until the free choice period. Once the reward is received and the opportunity for further rewards is removed, motivation vanishes.

Conversely, those who were not rewarded are usually happy to do the activity even without a reward during the initial period. Once the free-choice period commences, the unrewarded participants are significantly more motivated to do more of what others refused to do because they had been rewarded. Participants who receive rewards become less motivated and engaged.

A simple example involving toddlers: developmental psychologists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello conducted an experiment where 20-month-old children were given an opportunity to help others. Following their helping behaviour, the children received either an unexpected tangible reward or no reward, depending on the experimental condition. Receiving a reward led to less subsequent helping behaviour when given further opportunities.

Similarly, in a classic older study, pre-school kids were invited to drink a special yogurt drink and were rewarded with a goody or with praise. A control group received no reward. Researchers returned with more of the yogurt a few weeks later and invited the kids to drink again – this time with no reward. Kids who had been rewarded, either with a tangible reward or praise, were not interested in the drink. They didn’t want it or like it. Those who had not been rewarded consumed it as enthusiastically the second time as they had the first time.

And rewards have been shown to reduce motivation in adolescents and adults too. For example, in a classic study done in 1971, pioneering social researcher Richard Titmuss showed that many blood donors stopped giving blood once rewards were offered.

The research evidence shows that our intuition about rewards is probably wrong. Rewards may increase motivation – but it’s the wrong type. It is extrinsic; outside of us. And it only lasts while the reward is on offer. More of the wrong kind of motivation doesn’t help anyone in the long term. We need to reduce our reliance on rewards to build more of the right type of motivation: autonomous motivation.

So how do we do that?

We have a couple of options. First, we need to understand the reasons for the lack of ‘motivation’. You see, rewards and punishments ignore what’s going on for the person struggling with motivation. We see them refusing to attend school or do their chores and our response is to reward or punish them. Instead, perspective is needed. What are their challenges? Why are they lacking intrinsic motivation? Is the task really boring? Or is there something else going on?

Ask your kids, ‘What’s really getting in your way here?’ When we genuinely understand their challenge, we typically find that it’s not going to be fixed by a goody.

They say things like, ‘It’s boring’… and a reward isn’t going to remedy this. Rewards don’t make things interesting. They simply shift the focus from the task to the reward.

They might complain, ‘I don’t understand’, or ‘it’s too hard’. Rewards aren’t the answer here either. Your child needs you to spend more time helping them with the task.

Perhaps they’re self-conscious and are worried that if they try something in front of others they’ll fail and look foolish. A reward doesn’t fix that. While we are busy handing out tokens and rewards, we are ignoring the reasons your child doesn’t want to participate. Rewards won’t solve his problem.

We need to focus less on behaviours and more on obstacles to desired behaviours. Are they tired? Lonely? Stressed? Is it too hard? Does it seem to lack meaning? Addressing the obstacles requires us to consider how we might be contributing to the problem and work creatively with our child to find ways around the obstacles. Is the work we are asking them to do meaningful to them?

What else?

Give them a choice. Being able to choose what they’ll do leads to automatic increases in motivation. Why? Your child feels volitional. He is actually choosing for himself. It’s an intrinsic and internalised decision.

If your child doesn’t want to choose because nothing is appealing we can consider whether our requests are reasonable. If they are, we move to the next idea.

Build up the relationship. People work hard for those they love. A child who never liked science will turn out incredible projects when a new teacher inspires them. When a child feels our concern for their welfare, they trust us. They are open to our influence. We can guide them more successfully.

Finally, recognise that when a child feels competent, they are going to be more motivated than when they feel incapable. Our job is to build their sense of mastery so they feel like the things we invite them to do are achievable.

If you MUST offer a reward, make it unexpected. And assure your child that this isn’t going to be a regular thing.

When it comes to motivating our kids, our focus is misdirected. We see motivation as something they either have or don’t have. If they don’t have it, we try to provide it for them. Our question should not be ‘How motivated are you?’, but rather ‘How are you motivated?’ When we create conditions for motivation to be internal and autonomous, we’ll never need to ‘motivate’ our children again.

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.

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