My Reflections on Children Motivation

Have you ever tried to bribe your children? Like have you promised to give them something if they do this or that?

I have. 😔

I have to confess that sometimes I have bribed my children with ice-cream, I’ve promised to play a game if they tidy up their room and the list goes on and on. I wish I was smarter. Wish I had more strength to preserve in moments when it was too much. Wish there was someone to learn from. Sometimes parents choose the easiest exit. I bet you know that too!

I have learned that you can motivate children in a variety of ways: bribing, rewarding, promising, threatening and loving. However, there is only one way that truly works in my family.

Over the years parenting 4 children I have learned a thing or two. Let me share my discoveries and  the “field experience” so that you can avoid some of the mistakes I did.

bribing children with sweets

The big question:

What should we do when children do not want to do what (as we think) they should do and do it now?

I have not yet met a family that would not experience “The Phenomenon of a Messy Room”.

It is very interesting that we, the grownups, think that children should tidy up their room the exact moment we ask / say / beg / order. 😎

Are we not the same… 💭 Imagine you being cosy on the sofa, reading your favourite book when your husband rushes into the room and asks to do this and that. How would you act? Would you not say “Sure. Hold on until I finish this chapter and I will do it” Would we not hope for understanding? Then why we think our children should clean the room the same second we ask?

Finding The Good Seed of Motivation

There are many different views on children motivation. I have tried all I could find and came to realise that “not everything is gold that glows”. Or simply put -

Shortcuts to motivation do not work. At first they backfire at you, but at second - they shape your children character in a negative way.

Shortcutting motivation makes harder for children to connect with people and sustain healthy relationships later on in the life. In fact, I strongly believe that sowing the wrong seeds through motivation shortcuts is one of the strong reasons of todays “consumerism”. But that is a different story!

Motivation with Inspiring and Constructive Praise

I remember when I just joined aerobatics class and the trainer said “That girl has got it, look how her eyes are sparkling!” It certainly motivated me to excel. ☺️ For contrast, I also remember times where I was rebuked in order to “help me”…  those words created the opposite. 😕

Based on my past experiences I focus on giving praise. However, as Richard Templar says in his book The Rules of Parenting - The saying “Good can never be enough” certainly does not apply to giving praise. It does not mean that you should reserve praise! However, the given praise should be specific, constructive and relevant. If you give too much praise, you will devalue the meaning of good. For example, if the child has done something on an average level and you say that it is super great - what will you say when he truly does something remarkable?

Have you ever thought of how you are giving the praise to your child?

If you are praising children for good grades in school, but never for good behaviour - what does that say about your values? Would you rather praise your child for the victory, not outstanding endeavour?

Many parents forget to praise their children for good behaviour as it is deemed to be given.

Children do want to hear how good they are: “What a nice drawing!” or “I am amazed by your perseverance, how do you do that?” See how easy it is? Asking questions is an essential part of praise as it shows your interest and genuine care.

Motivation by Transforming the Task Itself

During an interview Alfie Kohn (the author of the book “Punished By Rewards”) once said that fines and rewards are manipulating the behaviour. (To which I very much agree and avoid whenever possible!)

The Self Determination Theory developers Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan confirms that fines and rewards are like “control through temptation” Alfie Kohn notes that children (and the grownups too) love to get a reward, but they do not like if the reward they want is used to manipulate them.

A. Kohn suggests to motivate children not with an enticing reward, but transforming the task itself by making it relevant and exciting.

Research shows that children who are motivated by reward in tasks that require creative problem solving, deliver lower quality results than those motivated by the task itself. (sorry guys, can’t find the research, so you will need to do the Googling)

Kohn believes that children have deserved relevant, interesting teaching material so that they are driven by the curiosity. Children should not be manipulated and controlled.

Try paying close attention to little children - you will see that they do not need to be motivated to do something. They are driven by the curiosity and love to receive praise and acknowledgement from their parents. However, in the primary school, this inner motivation is suppressed, especially, when children are rated with grades.

Praise is like a hammer to the Hammersmith, if used right, it can make the children feel valued and can even double their interest in the given task. However, if executed poorly, it can backfire and turn children in to praise seeking machines. Approach praise with caution and constructivism. Make sure that you are not giving a signal to the child: “If you will jump through this ring, only then I will let you know how great you are and how proud I am with you”.

Motivation the Montessori Way

I must mention that Maria Montessori (outstanding doctor and pedagog) observed the same in her experiments.

When rewarding children with prize, she noted that work quality and investment was significantly decreased. This is why in Montessori inspired homes and schools - grading is not practised. Instead, they tend to use other methods such as one-to-one conversations, goal setting, to do list for the upcoming week and task reflection afterwards. (Maybe a Montessori expert can elaborate on this more?)

To Sum Up

We must start by acknowledging that all children are different. What works for one, might not work for the other. However there are some ground rules that work for all humanity. We are made to be creators of things, we want to love and feel loved. Without love - there is no meaning.

After years of parenting, adulthood and growing up, I have learned that:

  • You must emphasise the child’s perseverance and encourage good behaviour
  • The praise must be constructive, related and deserved
  • Every task can be turned into a motivation itself

By far, I am not an expert in this field. These are just my reflections. I would love to hear from fellow parents on the journey on how you motivate your children?

Used literature

  • Richard Templar “The Rules of Parenting” 2009
  • Ron Brant “Punished by Rewards”
  • A conversations with Alfie Kohn “Education Leadership” 1995

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