Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards with Your Child

“I used to struggle with getting my kids to do their jobs, but giving them a reward gets them to do it,” Barry told his father at lunch one day.

His father brashly responded, “If you reward them, you take away all the joy inherent in doing the job.”

Barry scoffed at the moment, but it got him wondering if there was truth in his father’s statement. Is there intrinsic joy in learning, exploring, socializing, and persisting to overcome a challenge, as well as in other jobs like cleaning? If you give an extrinsic reward for doing these tasks, do you somehow rob a child of a character-building experience?

What are intrinsic and extrinsic rewards?
Some tasks or assignments are easy and naturally motivating like building a robot, painting a picture, or even organizing things. For some people, doing something enjoyable is enough of an intrinsic reward for these jobs. They want the natural joy of discovery or the satisfaction of achievement, especially if overcoming the challenge can help someone. For example, many adults find intrinsic meaning in their contributions to their jobs and their families.

Other jobs, however, are not as enjoyable. For example, many people try to avoid tasks like scrubbing toilets, persuading a room full of people to get on the same page, or meeting with angry customers unless there is some sort of extra reward like a “thank you” or a pat on the back. (Cash is nice too!) These are examples of extrinsic rewards that aren’t inherent in the job itself, but are sometimes offered to motivate the individual to do an unpleasant job.

Think of intrinsic rewards like a delicious omelet and the extrinsic rewards like the hot sauce. For some people, hot sauce makes an omelet a much better experience, but that hot sauce can also overpower the innate deliciousness of the omelet (and may even give you heartburn)!

Can you suck out intrinsic motivation with an extrinsic reward?
It’s possible! If a person is already engaged in the job and enjoying the challenge, an extrinsic reward can be a distraction.

Consider a ten-year-old student, Sarah, who loves reading story books. Sarah’s well-intentioned father notices this and wants to encourage a love for reading, so he offers an extrinsic reward of $5 per book. At first, Sarah is excited about this bounty and finishes a few books, but after a while, Sarah starts to wonder if it’s worth the time sacrifice just for $5. After just a few weeks, the original excitement and enjoyment has been replaced by this cost/benefit decision. This might not always happen with every student, but the risk is clearly there.

To learn more about how powerful (and fragile) intrinsic motivators can be, watch Dan Pink talk about the surprising truth about what motivates us.

Can extrinsic and intrinsic motivates work together?
Let’s now meet Sarah’s cousin, Terry, and pretend he absolutely hates reading. Terry hates reading so much he even skips the text on the back of his beloved collector cards. Naturally, Terry’s father is concerned. Is there a way Terry’s father can spark just a little tolerance for reading and maybe even kindle a touch of joy in Terry’s heart? Yes! If Terry’s father is careful and starts with some small experiments, there is a chance he can cause this change in Terry’s interests through extrinsic rewards.

Terry’s father offers to read a book with Terry, which only requires Terry to listen. The extrinsic reward in this scenario is attention from dad. Unfortunately, Terry still says, “No way.” So Terry’s father goes back to the drawing board. “OK. How about we go out to get ice cream if you read these two books with me listening to you,” Terry’s father offers. Terry reluctantly agrees and muddles through the books. It takes twice as much coaxing and persistence as Terry’s father originally thought, but the two achieve the victory of reading two short books.

A few victories later, Terry still doesn’t love reading, but he stops complaining. Over time, Terry’s father varies the rewards and is careful to keep them proportional with the required effort on Terry’s part. After all, he doesn’t want to set a dangerous precedent. He makes a few mistakes and reminds himself how important it is to find those “Goldilocks tasks” that are not too easy but not too challenging. Just like the jobs, the rewards must be enticing enough, but not too enticing. As the years go by, it’s possible Terry never will love reading, but he has still gained the necessary skills of becoming a proficient reader.

Little by little, we program our brains, sometimes accepting outside stimuli and sometimes rejecting it. Even small children make thousands of everyday decisions like this and are shaped by those choices. As British philosopher James Allen wrote, “As a [student] thinketh, so is he.”

When should I dial down extrinsic motivators? How?
One hundred small experiments are less risky than one large experiment. Small, iterative improvements are the key to long-term achievement. Your children are more likely to humor your challenges if they can accomplish it in small steps. For some, it may be a 20-minute step; for others, it could be a 120-hour project where the student is required to break it down into steps. Overall, let your student taste as much of the intrinsic rewards as possible. Like hot sauce on your omelet, extrinsic motivators can bring out the best in your children but also distract from the long-term benefits of the learning experience.

When you do introduce extrinsic rewards, do so at a frequency and power appropriate with their motivational needs, and be careful not to dilute the flavor of those precious intrinsic rewards. If apathy and inaction win for too many days, tweak the parameters of the offer (on the job side or the reward side). Like different flavors of hot sauce, vary the rewards. Most importantly, don’t give up on your kids. They need your encouragement, persistence, and love.

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