Do we bribe students to perform? Let’s develop intrinsic motivations

chipmunkBy Jeannette Tulis

Lately I have been doing a lot of thinking about how we motivate our children to do what is right, whether it be to do their homeschool lessons, how they relate to other family members, or go about their chores.

I find much inspiration at Mystie Winkler’s helpful blog SimplyConvivial. She kindly gives me permission to share it here.

In a post titled, “How Not to Motivate: Extrinsic Rewards,” Mystie asks some preliminary questions.

How do we treat our children? What incentives do we expect ourselves and our children to respond to?

In a previous post she offers a review of the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink. He identifies two different types of motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation: Doing something because of imposed rewards (that is, not natural consequences) you will receive for doing so.

Intrinsic Motivation: Doing something because of the satisfaction, delight, or natural consequences of doing so.”

It is important to note that while we all begin our life being motivated intrinsically, we often get trained to look for the extrinsic rewards. So while a child learns to walk for the sheer joy of independent locomotion, and the new opportunities that this ability affords, that same child learns to expect rewards if they offered for future accomplishments. Moreover to offer a child extrinsic rewards for desired behavior actually stifles the natural bent toward being motivated intrinsically. After all if one can get something for doing what is required, why not have a “sit in” until some type of reward is offered for that behavior. We are after all creatures of greed in our fallen natures.

Here’s Mystie’s analysis: External or extrinsic rewards diminish performance, crush creativity, encourage short term, even unethical behavior, create dependency and selfish ambition.
Intrinsic or internal motivation on the other hand is consistent with integrity and maturity.

Extrinsic motivators in the home & homeschool

And now Mystie points a finger at the well intentioned but misguided homeschool mom by providing examples of how some moms might be tempted to utilize cute and pinterest-worthy systems which motivate externally. How many of us might have wondered about the following:

• “Mom Bucks” or other reward stores

• Marble jars

• Ticket systems

• And, let’s not forget, sticker charts

Mystie’s assessment of these is spot on. External reward systems such as these presuppose that in order to learn to behave, children need positive reinforcement. But not just any positive reinforcement. They need prizes. They need something that appeals to their appetites. Appetites, however, grow when fed.

Such reward systems teach children to be little mercenaries, looking out to see if they’ll get their credit. And, as Jesus said, such have already received their reward. These systems, harmless though they might seem, train children to do good in order to be seen by men. They learn to do good in order to get something for themselves rather than because it is right.

These systems are totally modern, coming in with industrialization, when popular secularized psychology began teaching that people are best treated as cogs in the machine rather than as eternal souls. I know that is a harsh and extreme statement, but rewarding virtue with cash, marbles, sticks, tickets, or other superficial prize is treating a child as if he were a hamster rather than a soul made in the divine image.

If our goal is to train our children for life as mature adults and for eternity, then our methods and not just the short-term results matter. Let us not choose methods that fulfill only the goal of outward conformity, but be willing to put in the time, effort, and thought required to help our children do the right thing for the right reason.”

What is intrinsic motivation? Motivating without stickers

(A second Mystie post on this topic is so good, I am reproducing it nearly in its entirety — Jeannette).

So, if Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is correct in his conclusions and extrinsic motivators should be taboo when the work requires creativity or when it is something that touches our personhood (virtue, learning), then what tactics are left to us? If we aren’t to use sticker charts or play money or marbles or other superficial reward structures, are there any tactics left?

Intrinsic motivators

For we do still find ourselves with resistant, stubborn, misbehaving children and selves, who do need incentives and motivation. So, are we just to wallow in our fallenness and bemoan that we have lost our internal motivation, so without hope left in the world?

Of course not.

Intrinsic motivators take more time and effort and maturity to develop, but they are also more lasting and more applicable throughout life. In modern terms, intrinsic motivation is a life skill, whereas extrinsic motivation ceases when the reward system fails or ends. In sappy homeschool terms, intrinsic motivation is character training. It’s called integrity.

In classical terms, they used to say, “Virtue is its own reward.” Our training needs to focus on steering the child (and ourselves) toward not only acknowledging the truth of that statement, but feeling it. And it’s not done by superimposing prizes – that is, in fact, teaching the opposite, that virtue needs additional reward to be worth the effort.

Intrinsic motivators: Treat children with the dignity that maturing humans should be given; give them responsibility, tell them “well done” when they have done well (not effusively or with flattery) and make them redo their work or otherwise suffer the natural consequences of not doing well. Be willing to take a hard, unpopular line.

Children are not pets or trick ponies, to be given a treat when they perform. They are people, humans, souls, and should be treated as such – that they like a treat when they perform is no argument for doing so.

Reward demonstrated responsibility with more responsibility. That includes but is not simply more work, but more trust as well. Give them as much autonomy and independence in completing their work as they are able to faithfully fulfill. Remove degrees of autonomy and independence when trust is broken and increase it when it is earned. Remember that the goal is developing maturity in individuals, not managing a mob.

As the child progresses

Praise mastery of skills as it comes. As they progress in math or piano or reading or any pursuit, point out growth and ability they have gained. When they don’t want to try anymore, remind them that just like legs hurt when they grow, their mind tries pushing back when it grows, too. No pain, no gain. The reward, the skill, is on the other side of effort and hardship. This is how God made the world to work and fighting it is not only pointless, but counterproductive.

Ensure they understand why they are doing what is required of them. Although toddlers need to obey without question or understanding, take the time to talk to elementary students about the purpose behind requirements, school, and work (assuming you know the purpose, which you should; if you don’t, that might be why you’re having a hard time).

Now, having a conversation with them about purpose is quite different from them arguing and questioning. Theirs is still not to reason why, theirs but to do and die, so to speak. But as we develop these little enlisted soldiers into officers and prospective generals, we need to allow them to see behind the curtain at times and know there is purpose behind and progress ahead.

And what about intrinsic motivation for ourselves? What does that look like?

It is learning to love [in its proper place] a clean and orderly house. If we have right affections for our house and its state, then housework is no longer a menial chore that, when we do it, we feel entitled to kudos and bonus points – and resentful when we aren’t given kudos and bonus points.

It is doing the right thing (whether it be disciplining a child, cooking dinner, or cleaning house) because it is the right thing and therefore honoring to God. It is doing the right thing with the attitude Christ commends in Luke: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

It is knowing that our seemingly insignificant or mundane or never-ending work is part of our sanctification and therefore never insignificant. Biblical principles directly apply: We have to be faithful in the little things before larger responsibilities are given us; we are to work out our own salvation (and not others’) with fear and trembling; and no temptation has overtaken us that God has not also provided a way for us to resist and escape, if we want it. The day to day application of these principles can look inconsequential and it can manifest itself as completely different actions in different circumstances (folding the laundry or not, for example), but it is the principles and wisdom being learned and applied that matter, not a particular outward expression. (End of quoted material)

Well said Mystie!

Unthinking rewards

Another book I am reading for an online book study is When Children Love to Learn, edited by Elaine Cooper. The topic of rewards and punishments was beautifully articulated in some reflections from Maryellen St. Cyr as quoted by Covenant College professor Jack Beckman
“Seeing that behavior stems from the heart, educators need not take on the role of a behaviorist modifying and conditioning pupils to act accordingly through elaborate systems of rewards and punishments. There is another way, the way to the heart.

“Children already possess the capacity for responsible actions and natural curiosity to know and to do good work as a manifestation of who they are: free and responsible agents, in direct relationship to self, God, others and the world around them. When one rewards unthinkingly, the assumption is made that individuals cannot choose to act a certain way on their own. It becomes dehumanizing, treating people like pets or objects. It is the removal of what truly defines us as human.”

Dr. Beckman adds, “It is through the process of discipleship and relationship that we must make our plea — calling the heart of the child to duty to self, authority, and dominion-seeking in right ways. It is truly showing the child his own responsibility to choose and to act and a thinking, responding, relational person.”

Strength to the inner man

We can inform our students that the Holy Spirit who indwells them is their comforter, their advocate, their helper when they may not feel like doing what they know is right. The Holy Spirit speaks to their spirit and strengthens them in the inner man to do what is their duty. The sense of relief that they can do what they know in their hearts is right, that they do not have to give into the temptation to be lazy, to be irresponsible, to be recalcitrant, stubborn, rebellious, is welcome news to a child who often feels at the mercy of their selfish and foolish tendencies. This overcoming strengthens them for future battles against the self, their lower nature which are certain to occur.

What might an application of these principles look like? Suppose you have a student who is resistant to daily lesson in phonics or maybe math and verbalizes this with an “I don’t wanna do that.” You as the mom can come alongside your child draw them close to you and say something like, “I know you do not want to do that but I also know that you can do that and do it well. We need to exercise our spiritual muscles and do what we do not want to, when we are being asked to do a good thing. Reading or math is a good thing which will help you in the future. In order to be good at it, you have to practice.

Let’s ask God to help you want to do what is right and good.” Such conversations respect the child’s personhood but also call them to their duty, with confidence that they can rise to the occasion.

In this season of newness — new growth and new life — let us determine to lay aside the easy external motivational tactics if they have found a way into our homes and homeschools. Instead let us motivate our children with a reminder of what God calls them and us to do, to choose the right thing. Happy Easter and Happy Spring everyone.

— Jeannette is mom of four home educated children, with three already having flown the coop. From the Esprit newsletter, published nine times a year in Chattanooga for families involved in CSTHEA, or the Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Association.

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