Does Using External Rewards Motivate Our Kids?

intrinsic motivation motivating children rewarding children
Happy child showing good grades

The use of external rewards as a motivation teaches kids to only want to do things because of what they're going to get. For example, they may want to get incentives, such as praise (“good job”), a sticker on a chart, a new toy, or clothes.

External rewards causes kids to:
  • Look externally for approval
  • Be fearful in order to avoid punishment
  • Be sneaky, lie, and cheat

Because external motivation only works for a short time, parents must “up the game” to get the same results from the child, which is detrimental in the long run. External motivation fosters feelings of worthlessness, failure, and shame in children.

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation refers to engaging in an activity for its own sake. To be intrinsically motivated means to feel both competent and autonomous, “I can do it for myself”.

Intrinsic motivation creates:

  • Curiosity
  • A desire to explore
  • Passion
  • A greater understanding for the work they’re doing
  • Inner fulfillment
  • Engagement
  • Concentration and focus
  • Autonomy
  • Purpose
  • Pleasure
  • Self-fulfillment
  • Self-respect
  • Self-direction
  • Continuous growth and wisdom

Intrinsically motivated kids want to do well because it's enjoyable and interesting! Rather than because of an outside incentive or pressure to do it, such as a reward or deadline. The benefits are self-confidence, competency, security, creativity, persistence, emotional awareness, and resiliency. 

How to Foster Intrinsic Motivation in Kids

Learning to foster intrinsic motivation allows kids to stay attuned to themselves and become adults who are self-responsible, self-aware and successful.

1. Allow your child to do for themselves what they are capable of doing.

When we do things for our kids that they can do for themselves, they become dependent on us. We give them the underlying message that we don’t think they are capable. A dependent child becomes helpless, demanding and irresponsible. We must remember that loving our kids doesn’t mean doing for them. Loving them means preparing them for an independent life. We must give them opportunities to take on responsibility and participate in life.

Oftentimes, we do things for our kids because we are trying to be efficient, and get things done. Taking the time to teach our kids to do things for themselves can feel burdensome and time consuming,  however, if we continue to serve them instead of teaching them how to take responsibility for themselves, we set them up with expectation and entitlement later in life. 

2. Give your child “tasks” to help the household, not “chores”

As important members of the family, kids can be given the opportunity to keep the household running successfully. Adults begrudgingly associate work as something that is unpleasant, boring and undesirable. Instead of using the word chores, we can use other language such as “these are tasks we do because we are a family and want our home to be organized, tidy and we all need to contribute to make this a home”. Including kids in everyday activities that make the household function gives them important tools to succeed in life. It also creates a sense of community in the house when everyone is working together to create a beautiful environment.

3. Teach kids that choice creates consequences.

This happens each and every day for all of us. From what we eat for breakfast to what we wear. Giving our children the freedom to make choices when they are young (when the consequences are minor) is essential. For example, “Should I wear a skirt or should I wear jeans?”, “Should I play baseball or should I run track?”

Giving kids an opportunity to make their own decisions, even when it's uncomfortable for you, as long as safety is not a concern, is the best way to prepare your kids to make the really big, “life or death” decisions that can have detrimental consequences when they are in the adolescent years and when peer pressure is strong.

4. Do use money to teach kids fiscal responsibility

When we give our kids real choices in life, whether major or minor, we must include  money. I am not in agreement with giving kids an allowance to do normal household tasks as that can be associated with reward. There is, however, tremendous value in giving your kids money to learn fiscal responsibility. How to save for short term, long term, and to spend consciously is a gift you can give to your kids that will last a lifetime.

5. Allow your kids to try new things and to take risks.

Part of life is trying things AND FAILING! Encouraging kids to get out of their comfort zones (and us too), get creative, and let go of perfection is a gift that will last a lifetime! People who are highly successful take risks. Let’s not lock our kids into the fear of failure by focusing on achievement. Instead, encourage their efforts and allow them to enjoy the process that hard work brings. Failure won’t happen if you don’t try!

6. Give you kids an opportunity to find a solution.

Instead of jumping in to fix our kids’ problems, try giving them an opportunity to find a solution. Instead of giving them answers, provide a safety net by allowing them opportunities to problem solve. We can support them in coming to their own conclusions and be available for assistance or suggestions, however, we want them to feel confident in their own abilities. One way to inspire them is to become curious and ask questions, like:  “Where could you look to get the answer to your question?” and “What will you do to be sure you don’t miss the bus tomorrow?”

Giving kids opportunities to learn how to make good decisions even when less than ideal circumstances arise is great practice for life.

Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” ~ Maria Montessori



Book a Free 15 Minute Discovery Call with parent coach, Meg O’Keeffe to talk more about your situation and get your parenting questions answered!