In my last post “Parenting without Nagging, Threatening, or Rewarding” I gave an overview of the science about why these external motivators aren’t as effective as engaging our children’s intrinsic drive. And once we’ve taken time to take a step back to reflect, it may be surprising how often we rely on these motivational strategies. So if we’re not using threats, bribes, rewards, or nagging to motivate our kids, what should we do instead?
Research shows that when we elicit our children’s natural desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose it engages their intrinsic desire to complete a task. In the examples below, I use chores to illustrate these concepts, but these ideas can be applied to homework, piano practice, sibling relationships, or any other boring but necessary task of childhood.
Autonomy: Give your children choice about when, how and what they will do. Instead of telling our kids to take out the garbage after dinner, it’s more effective to give them a list of chores they can choose from, ask them to plan when they will do the daily chore, and then leave them with the opportunity to figure out how to do it without too much direction.
Mastery: This refers to the desire to get better at something. You may feel skeptical that any child would ever feel motivated to gain mastery over a boring chore, but when the task is sufficiently challenging, if we can make it fun, and when we instill pride in a job well done, we’ve inspired mastery. So instead of listing the same chores over and over, mix it up, give them something that is maybe a little difficult to make it challenging enough, and then make sure you praise effort over achievement. (See “Winning Redefined” posted 6/5/13 for more information on how to praise to encourage engagement).
Purpose: Purpose transcends the task at hand. When our children understand how their contributions impact the overall well-being of the family, they experience a sense of pride and purpose. Instead of just saying “great job” be specific about how their help makes a difference to you and the rest of the family and share your gratitude with them. Ultimately, this is much more satisfying and motivating to kids than simply receiving allowance for chores. Should we be giving our kids allowance? Yes! But that’s another topic for another day…