Internal vs. External Motivation

I admit that I have a lot to learn about raising children. Like most of you, I’m constantly looking for ways to improve. So I’ll share with you what we’ve been doing at home that seems to be effective (and is still a work in progress!)

In our culture I see many examples of adults who are teaching children to be guided by “external” motivators - a reward/punishment system. Some examples would be:

- Reward - “Johnny, if you pick up your room like a good boy, I’ll let you have a cookie.”


- Punishment - “Johnny, if you don’t pick up your room, you’re going to be in trouble and I won’t take you to the park this afternoon.”

I admit, I’ve been here and the results are less than favorable. When I have resorted to using external motivators, it is always because I am emotionally charged with fear - that something will not go as I expected. That is to say, when I am happy with your behavior, I feel in control and I will reward you. When I feel upset with your behavior, I feel out of control and I will give you punishments (I win, you lose because if you continue with the behavior that I don’t like you win and I Iose.) External motivators are tricky because, while it gets kids to do what others think is “good” or “right,” it sets them up for constantly looking to others to dictate what they can and cannot do. They quickly learn that when I do things that make people act happy, I get rewards (whether or not they are rewards that I actually like) and when I do things that make people act mad, I get punished. It might be that a child like this will grow up just wanting to do what is “right” and to make others happy (or I lose, you win.)

I’m learning that it actually takes less energy and interference from parents in the long run to just help children understand their own “internal” motivators. Laying the foundation for this, according to my experience so far, does take some savvy and persistence.

At our house, we’re trying to operate under the terms; “privileges,” “consequences,” and “responsibilities” – (that encourage independence and being self-aware) as opposed to “rewards” and “punishments” – (that encourage dependence and being self-conscious.)

  • Luca was persistent about not getting dressed one morning because he wanted to help me cook breakfast instead. I knew that he had to get dressed AND that he had an interest in helping cook. Instead of getting frustrated because he wasn’t taking action on my request for him to put on his clothes, I focused, instead, on the “privilege” of having him help with breakfast. It became his choice that if he were to have the privilege of helping with breakfast that he would have to finish his “responsibility” of getting dressed beforehand. He still persisted that he was not going to get dressed, so I went downstairs and started breakfast alone. He followed me, eager to help, but became very upset once I explained to him that since he chose not to get dressed, the “consequence” is that we did not have the privilege of cooking together. Before I knew it, he was getting dressed. Once he was dressed he jumped up to the counter to help finish with the breakfast. The beauty of this is that he was free to choose his destiny and that I felt no need or desire to pick a punishment or reward for his decision. AND we both got what we wanted - it was a win-win!

Had he still chosen not to get dressed, I would have had to continue to be in tune with what his internal motivators were and keep my emotions in check. Because we are, of course, on a time schedule, I have to allow plenty of time for working these things out in the mornings. (Although I’m finding that it is taking less time and energy as the foundation becomes more and more solid.)

The similarity of internal vs. external motivators is that, with both, the child is influenced by incentive (who’s not, right?)…the difference is that with one - the parent is assisting the child to respond according to the child’s own sense of accountability and with the other - the parent is using his own motivators to push the child to react in such a way that is desirable for the parent.