Intrinsic Motivation vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Let’s talk about motivation today. We are motivated to do things for all sorts of reasons, some of which have intrinsic value, and others that are more extrinsically driven.  An example of an intrinsically motivated choice would be reading a book purely because you value learning or reading a story. You get no external benefit from reading the book, it is all intrinsic in nature. The pleasure is driven solely by the activity you are doing. In contrast, an example of an extrinsically motivated choice would doing something good for a reward, or even avoiding something to avoid a punishment. With extrinsically motivated choices the action isn’t seen as beneficial to you unless there is a reward or you are avoiding a punishment. The pleasure comes more from the reward or lack of punishment than from the task itself. There isn’t anything wrong with being externally motivated for some things. How many of us go to work simply to get a paycheck? The problem is how much we use extrinsic motivation on children in regards to their behavior and their life choices.

Extrinsic Motivation And Why It Isn’t So Great

So…what does all this have to do with parenting? Most traditional parenting methods are heavily focused on changing behaviors with extrinsic motivation. Whether it be punishments or rewards, the goal is the same. There has been a lot of research on how punishments and negative motivation can be harmful.

Many educators are acutely aware that punishment and threats are counterproductive. Making children suffer in order to alter their future behavior can often elicit temporary compliance, but this strategy is unlikely to help children become ethical, compassionate decision makers. Punishment, even if referred to euphemistically as “consequences,” tends to generate anger, defiance, and a desire for revenge. Moreover, it models the use of power rather than reason and ruptures the important relationship between adult and child. ~Alfie Kohn

Now the focus is more on positive motivators. Parents are using sticker charts, praise, and rewards for good behaviors as their main focus. I am not here to argue whether rewards or any kind of extrinsic motivation works. We know that it does. I am here to argue that children who are purely extrinsically motivated have a harder time being intrinsically motivated. Basically, they won’t want to perform a task unless there is some external benefit. Extrinsic motivation doesn’t last. It has to constantly be repeated every time you want them to do something. Kids aren’t learning the internal benefits of reading, pitching in around the house, learning, etc because once extrinsic motivation is introduced, the intrinsic motivation has very little chance to develop on its own.

Rewards cause people to lose interest in whatever they were rewarded for doing. ~Alfie Kohn

Intrinsic motivation

Maybe this isn’t a problem for you. Maybe you are perfectly willing to reward your child for good behavior until they move out, but for the rest of us, we want our children to want to be kind, to want to share, to want to help out around the house, to want to learn. We want them to do all these things without the promise of a reward or the threat of a punishment. We want them to have an intrinsic desire for these things because we know they won’t be living with us forever, and we want them to have a life time of happiness that doesn’t revolve around being rewarded or punished for doing things.

To be intrinsically motivated is to see the value in something without external factors swaying your decision. It is wanting to help because you care about the person you are helping. It is practicing an instrument because you want to get better and you love playing. It is sharing with a friend or sibling because you care about them and want to include them. I am fairly certain that if parents are being honest with themselves they would much prefer a child that is intrinsically motivated to do well and be kind. The problem is our parenting practices and fears that our children won’t naturally behave the way we want them to tends to sway our decision-making process.

Intrinsic Motivation and Living Authentically

The golden question then is, how do we intrinsically motivate children? Well, you can’t, because the very definition of intrinsic means it has to come from them. They have to want it. There is no way to control your children to be intrinsically motivated. The answer is to allow your children the freedom to decide. Educate them about healthy food choices, and then let them decide. Talk to them about helping out around the house and then let them decide. Talk to them about all sorts of things, and then let them decide. And most importantly, model an intrinsically motivated life so that they can see how rewarding living a principled life is. No rewards are needed for doing something you absolutely love doing. You will do it whether there is a reward or not.

In short, good values have to be grown from the inside out. Attempts to short-circuit this process by dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive. Children are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and why) they are learning. Rewards–like punishments–are unnecessary when these things are present, and are ultimately destructive in any case. ~Alfie Kohn

So what does this mean as far as parenting our children goes? Hopefully, we all already understand that punishments are ineffectual for long term compliance and behavior, but what about rewards? This doesn’t have to mean we never do anything fun for our children, but it means there is no stipulation for doing something nice for them. You will take them to a movie simply because you want to take them out and have a good time. You will hug them simply because you love them. You will buy them ice cream simply because you want to do something special for them. Letting go of manipulating behaviors with extrinsic motivators opens up the gate for you to live authentically with your children. They do something you don’t like and you talk to them about it, just like you would with any adult who did something you didn’t like. They do something you do like you give them a high five, or tell them you are grateful. They do something that they like, no reward needed because the benefit was already achieved in the act itself.

The fundamental problem with parenting to today is the attempt to control and manipulate our children’s behavior through extrinsic means. This is an old outdated idea and our children are ready for change. Our real power with our kids comes through our connection with them. That is where intrinsic motivation really has the chance to grow.

The topic of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation is a large one that covers anything from parenting, education, and the workplace that whole books have been written about. If this idea intrigues you and you want more, I highly recommend looking into Alfie Kohn for more information on parenting and education and Dan Pink has a great Ted Talk that discusses motivation more in life and in the workplace just to name a few.

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Parenting is Hard

Parenting is hard. That is a giant understatement. Parenting is big, important, magical, crushing, uplifting, ridiculous, fun, blissful, overwhelming and so many more adjectives. It’s a roller coaster of every possible emotion you can imagine, and a few you can’t imagine. Here is just one of my stories that illustrate a little bit of parenting madness with a sweet resolve.

Usually, Aaron and I naturally take turns switching between being the calm, centered parent and being the angry parent.  It isn’t something we plan.  Our triggers are usually very different and when he is angry I can usually see reason as well as when I am angry he can see reason.  The goal is to stick up for the kids and be their voice when they are scared without undermining the feelings and needs of the parent who is angry.  This usually helps ground the angry parent and leads to quicker conflict resolution.  It doesn’t always work out so picture perfect, in fact, I am about to share a story with you where both Aaron and I lost our cool.

It was Easter, we had spent the morning enjoying playing with all the goodies from our kids Easter baskets, then spent a few hours playing at the Spanish Fork Hare Krishna Temple’s Festival of Colors getting filthy, came home to shower all the colors off of us, and then raced off to eat an Easter dinner at my mother’s house.

It was one of those days when you are so glad to just be home and you want nothing else but to kick back, relax and maybe watch a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother.

We also recently bought a new van and since we pretty much spent a good portion of our day in it, we wanted to clean it up a bit before we went in to relax.  So Aaron and I stayed out in the car to clean while my daughter went inside. Our two boys stayed to hang out with us while we cleaned for about 20 minutes.  When we finally came inside to relax we found my daughter had a bit of fun with some colored powder from the festival.

To say we were a bit frustrated may be a bit of an understatement.  We were exhausted and very angry!  There wasn’t much time for rational thought, so I left my brain behind while I went all yell happy.  Apparently, Aaron’s rational brain wasn’t up for the task that night either because he chimed right on in with me.

For about 20 minutes we went on about how angry we were, guilting her, and in between, we found new surprise messes that fueled our anger even more.  For the first 10 minutes she just ignored us or shouted back, but the last 10 minutes she got real quiet.  That is what got my rational brain to come back.

I mentioned to Aaron that I think we were too hard on her, and without saying anything I knew he agreed.  He was busy cleaning up what is now our permanently purple sink, so I went back to talk to her myself.

I found her drawing a picture and she had teardrop marks down her cheeks.  I let her know that I felt really sad for how I treated her and that I know she was just exploring and experimenting with the colors.  I let her know that I was tired and grumpy from such a long day and that I really needed to relax and was sad that her play got a little too messy.  I hugged her and told her how much I loved her.

Turns out the picture she was drawing was an apology. Art is her way of expressing herself since she has a hard time saying what she feels.  I asked her to tell me about it and she explained to me that she is sorry, she loves us, and the words say “I promise I won’t ever do it again.”  On the back, she drew her name and herself crossed out.  She didn’t tell me what it meant, but she cried when she showed it to me.  It isn’t too difficult to understand what she meant by it.

Aaron came with his own picture to tell her he was sorry complete with hearts and words of his own.

I hate having these fights with my children.  I hate conflict in general, but mostly with my kids, it is hard because they are too weak to stand up for themselves.  It is very easy to let my emotions get out of hand when it comes to them.

I feel even worse when Aaron and I gang up on them because it only compounds the problem!

I can only take comfort in the fact that I am getting much better at this than I used to be and am making changes for the better all the time, and that after our conflict we spent the rest of the night bonding and snuggling.

Now, every morning I wake up and see our permanently purple bathroom and remember that no mess, broken item, or any conflict is worth ruining a relationship over.

I hope that in the future I can resolve these conflicts without shaming, guilting, or without raising my voice.

I hope my children can see that it is okay to make mistakes as long as you take responsibility for them afterward.

I hope that I can show my children that if you love someone you make every effort to understand and accept them.

Mostly, I hope that I can show my children how to peacefully resolve conflict and that underneath behaviors there are needs asking to be met.

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The Problem With Obedience: Why You Really Don’t Want An Obedient Child

Wouldn’t it be nice if your children just did what you asked all the time? Do you ever have this thought? Of course you do! You have children. I have had the same thoughts (trust me), but when you really think about the long term consequences of obedience and how that looks in a relationship, you start to really question our culture’s parenting methods.

Have you ever heard anyone admiring another adult for being obedient? Or how about someone talking about their partner or husband or wife being obedient. Now it isn’t sounding so awesome, is it? I would think that another word for an obedient adult would be a pushover, yet when we see children being obedient we praise them and their parents. “What obedient children you have! You must be doing something right” or “What a good little girl/boy listening to your parents.” My guess is that most adults think that obedience = respect, and as parents, lets face it, blind obedience is easier in the moment. We don’t have to compromise, understand, or negotiate because “I am the parent, and I said so!” (Who here has heard/said that one?) My question is, if obedience isn’t a quality that is admirable in adults, why has it become such a focus in raising our children? What is the problem with obedience, and what should we aim for instead?

Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting, asks the parents he works with to take 15 minutes and list the long term goals they have for their children. “What would you like them to be able to do, want to do, to feel, and to be like in the years to come?” He goes on to say that during this exercise most parents listed things like being self-reliant, responsible, socially skilled, caring, succeeding, critical thinking skills, confidence, and an unshakable faith in their own worth while still being open to criticism. Not a single parent listed obedience. Kohn admits that compliance can actually work against the child as a teenager saying, “If they take their orders from other people, that may include people we may not approve of. To put it the other way around: kids who are subject to peer pressure at its worst are kids whose parents taught them to do what they’re told.”

The obedient child is unable to think for himself, is susceptible to peer pressure and is at risk for being mistreated by untrustworthy adults. ~Alyson Schafer

The ugly truth about demanding obedience in our children is that it silences their own inner voice to determine what feels right for them. It is difficult to determine what we want for our lives when someone else in constantly making us do things we don’t choose for ourselves. Children need to be given the opportunity to make their own choices when they are young and under the guidance of their parents, rather than waiting until they are free enough from them to do what they want without regards to anyone or what is safe for them. Demanding obedience doesn’t build trust, or make them want to cooperate with you, nor does it build a critical thinking child. I know this sounds odd, but having a child question your authority and your requests is actually a sign of a healthy human being.

A more appropriate goal for our children would be cooperation. Cooperation strengthens the underlying fabric of relationships through balanced interchange, open communication and mutual understanding.  Demanding obedience damages the relationship as well as the self esteem of the child. A child that is cooperated with tends to want to cooperate in return. The child who has no will to choose has no room to develop self discipline and becomes the child you were trying to avoid in the first place.

So where is the balance? As parents, there are time constraints, certain dangers, and certain things we would really like our children to do, or not do. For starters we can give our children more choices throughout the day. Things that are within their grasp to understand and do on their own is a perfect place to start. Say yes as much as possible! Allow your children to make as many of their own decisions as they can. Children are very quick to learn natural consequences, so if they want to go out in the cold without a jacket why not let them try it? Being cold isn’t the worst thing that can happen to them, and maybe they really like being cold! Be mindful of the situations that are truly dangerous and use your own discretion as to whether or not you should intervene. We need to decide whether the compliance we are after is worth the strain on the relationship.

Find more opportunities to include your children in your chores so that they can see it as a bonding and fun experience. When you do decide to clean up after them, try to do so joyfully and mindfully. Children learn from what they see, not from what they hear. Make sure  that you put everyone’s needs on the table equally, and include them in your planning if it involves them. What your children want is just as valuable to them as what you want is valuable to you. Most of the disobedience we see is just natural curiosity and natural resistance to a situation over which they feel like they have no control.  Lets help them take charge over their lives, and help them develop a healthy self esteem where they trust themselves to make good decisions and learn self-discipline. Instead of obedience, seek for a cooperative child!

So in our house, saying no is okay. Negotiating terms is encouraged. Asking questions about why we need to do something is okay. And most important, having strong emotions about a decision is absolutely okay. I want to teach my children that no matter someone’s age, size, or status, it is always okay to question and stand up for your beliefs and ideas.

So when you are tempted to force your child to wear the matching blue shirt instead of the rainbow concoction they chose instead, don’t let your discomfort override their authenticity. If you don’t want an obedient adult, don’t aim for an obedient child.

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New Blog: Liberated Parenting

Welcome to Liberated Parenting everyone! I am Lyndsey Merrill, mother of three free range children, peaceful parenting and child advocate, and author at Liberated Parenting.

My goal and purpose for writing on Liberated Parenting is to help parents be more aware of the decisions they make in regards to parenting.  There are a lot of cultural ideas and traditions of how parents are “supposed” to do things, and even how children are “supposed” to behave.  Most information out there is about how to have power over your children. I want to help shift the focus of having power with your children.

The typical parenting paradigm focuses so much on training children to behave properly rather than connecting with and guiding them. Not only is it damaging to the child, but it is exhausting as a parent! I have been there, I feel your pain, and I want to help alleviate it. If we shift our views on what parenting looks like it can be a much more joyful experience.

At Liberated Parenting I will be focusing on the needs of the children underneath their behavior as well as addressing the needs of the parent. I will also be focusing on peaceful, respectful ways to resolve conflict. Hopefully you will leave here with a new zest and understanding for parenting in partnership with your children!

A Little About Me…

When I got married I began to really analyze and question the world around me.  Why do I do what I do, and how can I make my life better and more enjoyable was always at the forefront of my mind.

After my first child was born, I mostly just intuitively cared for her, not knowing anything about how I wanted to raise her.  I nursed her, held her often, picked her up when she cried, etc.  It was exhausting, but equally rewarding.  With all of my kids, as babies, their needs were basic and relatively easy to meet.

As my kids got older parenting got more complicated.  The only thing I knew was I didn’t want to spank or hit them. This had been done to me and my husband and we felt it was damaging with no redeemable value.  It taught us to fear our parents, and we wanted connection and love with our children.  The problem came when we didn’t know how to go about teaching or disciplining them without the use of force or manipulation.  We began reading, reading, and more reading to figure out how to meet the needs of our kids as well as meeting our own needs.  We quickly became familiar with the term peaceful parenting, and it made absolute sense to us!  We were so excited we now had principles to parent by.

The reason I wanted to start this blog is because I want to help spread the good news and help parents connect better with their children, as well as help children be heard and recognized as important too!  The name Liberated Parenting came about because this way of parenting, even though it isn’t always easy, is always liberating!  When we get in the pattern of trying to control our kids, its exhausting with little fruition; think trying to swim up river against the current. When we try to live in partnership with our kids they respond to us more, the relationships are better, and it is just more enjoyable! You may still be swimming, but at least you are swimming with the current and going with the flow.

I also wanted to show people what this looks like.  When I was reading all of the literature surrounding this lifestyle, it seemed all sunshine and rainbows.  As if living this way has absolutely no conflict because everyone’s needs are being met, or if you treat children peacefully they will turn into perfect little altruistic beings.  The reality for us has been that it isn’t always easy to meet everyone’s needs, and that no one is perfect, let alone our children who are just learning how to navigate their world and their emotions and how to interact with others.  So I want this column to be real.  I want to show you the value of living in partnership with your kids rather than ruling over them, but I also want to show you that it isn’t always sunshine and rainbows.  Just like a relationship with a spouse has conflict, and if dealt with respectfully, conflict is actually good for the relationship, the same idea applies to our relationship with kids!

So come, follow my story and see what liberated parenting looks like for us.  Hopefully I can inspire you as I was inspired by others to live in harmony with your kids and liberate yourself from a parenting role that doesn’t serve you!

And feel free to let me know what kinds of things you might want me to cover.  If you have questions, or situations that you don’t know how to handle, or concerns, please share with me in the comments some of your major issues with parenting, or with your kids.  I certainly am not an expert, but sometimes all you want is just real parents talking to other real parents. ;)

Thanks for visiting!!

Lyndsey Merrill

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