The Importance of the Intrinsic

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? Enter the intrinsic.

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 clear 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.

To be continued…

Published on: March 06, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Adria Banihashemi

Adria Banihashemi is a mother of two, and writer at, a website dedicated to providing relevant advice for people attempting to live a healthy, natural life and a nutrition and fitness coach in the San Francisco Bay area.

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