What Is Inspiring? (Part 2–External Motivation)

The last time you wanted your kids to do something, how did you try to motivate them? Did you threaten them with a consequence? Did you appeal to their sense of responsibility? Do you bribe them with a reward?

When I was a teenager, I used to take my shoes off and leave them wherever I happened to be in my house at the time. It drove my parents crazy! They tried everything they could think of to get me to put them away. Begging and pleading did nothing. So they finally resorted to threatening that if they found a pair of my shoes lying around, they would throw them into the backyard—rain or shine.

But it didn’t work. I still didn’t put them away. I wasn’t motivated because the threat coming from my parents wasn’t enough to overcome my desire to be lazy and to just leave my shoes lying around.

I also remember being annoyed that my parents were doing things to my stuff. At times, my mother would actually point out shoes that had been in the backyard for several days. I would acknowledge what she had said and then purposely “forget” to go get them, just because the whole idea bugged me so much. I didn’t want her telling me what to do. (That pretty much sums up my teenage life in a sentence!)

My parents were using what psychologists call “external motivation” to try to get me to do something. External motivation is anything that tries to motivate you from outside of yourself. It’s not something you can control. Threats, deadlines, pressures, and rewards are all types of external motivation that we see around us (and often use ourselves) on a regular basis.

Several months ago, my husband was out of town, and I had to take all four of my children shopping for several large appliances. I knew that taking four children, ages 9 down to 3, into several appliance stores had the potential to be a disaster, so I prepared, prepared, prepared. I brought snacks. I brought toys to play with. And I pulled out the big guns—I told them that if they were really, really good, we would go to McDonald’s after we were done and then eat dinner at the park. Since we NEVER do this, my children were sooooo excited.

But three and half hours later, four games of tag, and a broken lamp—I learned firsthand, that my externally motivating reward was not enough to combat the boredom and curiosity that had welled up inside my children.

We resort to using external motivation because we can make it work often enough (although it doesn’t work all the time–as my two examples showed!). If we ratchet up the intensity of the motivation, we can almost always force someone to do something. But it often doesn’t work for very long, and it doesn’t work without consequences.

One of the consequences is that when someone tries to manipulate us with external motivation, we feel controlled. And that is something, as human beings, we do not like—at all. A dramatic example of this is the current revolutions sweeping the Middle East. Here you have a group of people who have spent, in some cases, a lifetime being controlled by tyrannical dictators. And what they are showing us is that at some point, the human spirit’s desire to break free will push back so that it can retake control and have the freedom to choose—whether that human spirit’s choice is to leave shoes littered around a backyard, to explore an appliance store, or to topple a dictatorship.

Now, I don’t want you to think that external motivation is NEVER a good thing. Sometimes it can be the perfect way to motivate your kid. External motivation can work well if a task is boring or tedious—like assembly line work in a factory. Or if you don’t care if the task ever becomes enjoyable—like cleaning the toilet. Or if you know that your kid just needs a little jump start for their own desires to kick in. But often we resort to negative forms of external motivation—such as guilt, threats, and punitive consequences—simply because we are at a loss as to what else to do. (Rewards, which are a positive form of external motivation, can play a special role in motivating, and I’ll talk more about them in future posts.)

Now, if you want your child to look forward to the task ahead of him, there is a much better way to motivate in many, many situations. Psychologists call this category of motivation “intrinsic motivation,” which is motivation that comes from inside of a person, driven by a sense of purpose and goals set by the person. And this is what we want! We want our kids to WANT to do things. So I’m going to spend most of my time in the future talking about intrinsic motivation. Because if we want to inspire our children to learn, we have to focus on ways to intrinsically motivate them.

Until then, pay attention to what happens when you use external motivation to try and motivate your kids. How do they respond? How intense do you have to get? How long does the desired result last? How do you feel when you use external motivation? How do your children feel toward you?

And then ask yourself . . . Could I have done something different?


Filed under Theory Behind It All

3 responses to “What Is Inspiring? (Part 2–External Motivation)

  1. Jeanne Smith

    I can’t wait!!! I need to see an example of how to help a child develop intrinsic motivation!!! I am an external motivator and I tend to employ the guilt trip far too often. I must say, I have an impressive guilt trip, so good in fact, I feel guilty most of the time!! I don’t want my kids to feel that way. Love the posts Tori, can’t wait til the next one.

  2. Julie

    Yes! Please teach me!! I have perfected the art of bribery, but I don’t want a Libyan-size revolt when they’re all teenagers! Thanks Tori.

  3. Shannon

    My four children range in age from 13 to 5 with a six year span between the two oldest and the two youngest. In some ways it feels like I’m raising two sets of children. My oldest are old enough now to allow me to see the effects of parenting mistakes I’ve made, am still making, and that I want to correct in order to better parent the younger ones. I am feeling rather passionate about making some big changes in myself and my family….so I’m anxiously awaiting your words on intrinsic motivation. I need this information!

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