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Psychology: Children and Motivation

June 25, 2014

By Dr. Tyffani Dent

A mother smiles with her two daughters.

I have two daughters. Having them made me realize two things: God has a sense of humor, and my mother’s prayer that I have little girls “just like me” was not meant as a blessing. I have come face-to-face with the realization that my daughters have very different levels of motivation for learning and completing tasks.

My oldest has always been very easy. We would provide her with a task or new opportunity and she would demonstrate a phenomenal eagerness to learn and do. She was persistent in staying on tasks, enjoyed new challenges, and would work without much assistance from us.

In my youngest, I found myself cajoling, arguing, fussing, bribing, and begging her to stay on task and try new things. She would look at me politely and say, “No, thank you,” letting me know she had manners but no desire to do what I asked.

As a psychologist, I realized that my daughters had different motivation types. One can either be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. An intrinsically motivated person has the internal desire to perform a task because he or she enjoys it, likes the idea of learning something new, or believes it is just something that he or she should do. My oldest is an example of intrinsic motivation.

An extrinsically motivated person does not have this same desire. When this person does perform tasks, he or she will do so for a specific reward that he or she values more than the task itself. My youngest is an example of an extrinsically motivated person. With these children, we run the risk of them not working to their full potential, as schools and society do not always offer tangible rewards for learning or excelling at a task or activity.

In the case of my youngest and extrinsically motivated daughter, I found that I was not alone in my begging, bribing, or giving in to her candy demands. At her preschool, I noticed sticker charts for saying ABCs, certificates for coloring, and candy for listening (all extrinsic motivators), even though research shows that only focusing on external rewards is not successful in the long term.

In acknowledging the need to increase intrinsic motivation in children, one study provided a few tips:

  1. Set a goal that your child finds meaningful. For my daughter, this meant learning to leap higher, which involved her actively going to ballet class.
  2. Stimulate his or her interest. When trying to get her to want to learn colors, we asked her what she thought would happen if we mixed colors together. By engaging her interest, we helped her motivation to learn.
  3. Show your child that working gives him or her power. Children like a sense of control and to believe that what they do has an impact. Give your child choices so he or she feels control over the situation. For my youngest, we asked her, “Do you want to write your numbers or say them to Mommy?”
  4. Work and play do not have to be separate. Make the task into a game. Learning does not have to be boring. Be creative—use a sibling’s board game to learn problem solving or counting.
  5. Sometimes extrinsic rewards are beneficial. Even though stickers, charts, and occasional candy aren’t optimal, sometimes they can help motivate your child.

Children may have different levels of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. As parents, we should try to increase intrinsic motivation in our children. Now, I am going to get myself a cup of coffee, because even adults like rewards sometimes.

Dr. Tyffani Monford Dent is a licensed psychologist, motivational speaker, and author. She lectures and trains on issues of mental health disparity in minority communities, children’s and women’s issues, and sexual abuse intervention and prevention. Dr. Dent is also the executive director of Monford Dent Consulting & Psychological Services, LLC and the author of the book Girls Got Issues: A Woman’s Guide to Self-discovery and Healing.


2 responses to 'Psychology: Children and Motivation'
Tyfanni - Great article!  Understanding your how to motivate your child is especially helpful in encouraging them to complete household tasks.  The Daddy Bucks rewards I mentioned in the June 12th article on chores was strong motivation for two of my kids.  Thanks for sharing the info!
Daddy Bucks (or Mommy Bucks or something similar) seem like a great option for extrinsically motivated kids, since the reward is more engagement-focused (and less sugar-focused). :)

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