How to Develop Intrinsic Motivation in Your Child

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“I take away his phone and he behaves for three days and then goes right back to the back-talking and crappy attitude. I don’t understand why he doesn’t just… learn!”

My ex was talking about our 13-year-old son, and I completely empathized with his frustration. Not just for this particular unwanted behavior, either—sometimes it feels like every aspect of disciplining our kids is redundant and endless, like Sisyphus in Hades pushing his boulder up a hill only to have it roll right back down, over and over again for all eternity. Please let this torture end.

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Why don’t the consequences we institute for our kids absorb immediately into their brains and prevent them from repeating unwanted behaviors? And, for that matter, why don’t the positive reinforcements cause more repetition of good behavior?

The type of motivation matters

Part of the answer has to do with the type of motivation we’re instilling. Much of the discipline we provide our children has to do with external motivation. Whether it’s an unpleasant consequence for unwanted behavior or a positive reinforcement for a desired behavior, it’s still consequence-based motivation.

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The technical term for this is “extrinsic motivation.” This type of rewards-focused motivation does have its place in our lives, it can produce the results we want and it can be a powerful motivator. For most of us, it’s the reason we pay taxes—we want to avoid the consequence of having to pay hefty fines to the government. Still, I want more for my kids than for their behavior to be dictated by seeking a reward or avoiding a punishment.

The kind of motivation I want to dominate my kids’ decision-making is intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, and it’s not about seeking a reward in exchange for a certain behavior. The behavior itself is the reward.

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Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

Consider your child’s motivation for getting good grades. An extrinsic motivator would be to offer your child a monetary or other type of reward for every “A” they earn. Your child may do the work to earn A’s, but they may do so with the goal of earning the reward for the grades rather than for the grades themselves.

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On the other hand, if they are intrinsically motivated, they’ll study hard because the sense of accomplishment feels great or because they are truly interested in the material, or, at least, in the challenge of learning the material.

That doesn’t mean parents should ditch all rewards. Psychology professor Vanessa LoBue writes for Psychology Today that rewards should simply be used more strategically:

If you want to promote intrinsic motivation—if you want to teach your kids that learning in school or helping others are enjoyable in and of themselves—using rewards might be the wrong strategy. Again, that doesn’t mean rewards are always bad. When I was potty training my son, we showered him with jelly beans and praise when he had a successful trip to the bathroom. Teaching my son to have intrinsic motivation to pee in the toilet isn’t something we were necessarily concerned about, since eventually, everyone learns to do it.

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It’s also important to avoid something called the “over-justification effect,” which is when a behavior or activity that is already intrinsically motivated is rewarded externally as well. This can reduce the intrinsic motivation by making what previously felt like play suddenly feel more like work.

An example of this was shown in a study by researcher E.L. Deci; after participants were paid for their efforts to complete a puzzle, they worked less on the puzzle in a subsequent unpaid setting than the always-unpaid control group, who worked on the puzzle presumably for the fun of it.

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Here’s how you do it

Praise effort and accomplishments, not personality traits 

With the report card example, you could say, “That A shows me you studied hard and turned in all your work!” Calling a kid talented or smart is an extrinsic motivator—the reward is the implied favorable comparison with others. Kids who are taught to value effort over results are more likely to keep trying when faced with challenges.

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Model your own intrinsic motivation

A good work ethic is intrinsically motivated. Being on time because it feels good to consider others is intrinsically motivated. Partaking in a hobby you love is intrinsically motivated. Make sure your kids see these things.

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On the other hand, if you only drive the speed limit when a cop is on the road with you, your kids will see you’re externally motivated to be compliant with the law. If you’re only kind to people who can get you something you want, your kids will see that, too. We can show our kids through our own behavior the satisfaction that comes from intrinsic motivation.

Talk about it. A lot

Rewards and consequences are important tools to help guide our children toward appropriate behavior and self-sufficiency. But along with that, we have to explain why those consequences are in place. Talk about your experiences of accomplishing goals due to your own inner drive, how those successes are often more fulfilling than straight rewards-seeking. Repetition is necessary here because, unlike external motivators, which are tangible, internal motivation is harder to grasp. It requires more consideration.

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When my son’s dad was talking out his frustrations, I empathized with him. Discipline can be redundant and thankless. But I reminded him that even though our son may back-talk or have a crap attitude sometimes, more often than not, he is polite, considerate and generous. That’s because, over the years, we’ve modeled that behavior and talked about why it’s important. It’s not about him keeping his phone in his possession. It’s about being a good human.

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So, yes, we take his phone away when he can’t get his attitude under control. But the older he gets, the more I see him independently considering how his words and actions impact others. And he doesn’t get a reward from that, other than his own sense of self-respect.


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