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:
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.