Are children better motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation – How To Effectively Motivate Kids

Do your children ever suffer from a lack of motivation? Perhaps they put off doing a task that seems too difficult, too boring, or even too easy? One of the foundational principles of virtually all parenting strategies, including positive parenting, is motivating your kids to behave appropriately and do what you ask.

It’s so easy to procrastinate. The reward may be immediate gratification, but long term, the task is still there – just waiting to get done.

Let’s find out a little more about motivation and see how it affects our children’s daily life and their future fulfilment as an adult.

The science behind motivation

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, also known as the “happy hormone”. Tyrosine and phenylalanine, obtained from protein-rich foods, produce this happy hormone. Special parts of the brain manufacture it and release it for action on the higher centers of our brain. 

When our dopamine levels spike we feel good in ourselves – it’s almost like a reward system built into our brains. You can create this effect when you look forward to something exciting or pleasurable – and as the level of dopamine rises so you feel more and more motivated.

Motivation is a balance. Does doing the task make you feel better than not doing it? In other words, which matters most the carrot or the stick? “If I do my homework now I can out to play before bed, but if I don’t the teacher will be cross.” Which is the stronger motivator – going out to play or the teacher being cross? For younger children, you would need to change the motivation so that the effects are more immediate. “If you do your homework now you can go out to play, but if you don’t there will not be time to play.”

There are two sources of motivation: internal, or intrinsic motivation and external, or extrinsic motivation. We’ll look at them in more detail now.

What is intrinsic motivation?

When our motivation comes from inside ourselves. It is not dependent on any outside rewards or stimulus. We get pleasure from feeling from that warm feeling inside that signals a job well done, an interest satisfied, pride in our achievement. We feel at peace with ourselves. 

Our children appear to be contended when they are allowed to take on a challenge without demands from us as parents. A strong willed child can be very determined, and ignore or resent disincentives.

We respect our intrinsic values and our feelings of self-worth are boosted. It feels right and it feels good. Children have good instincts and when they are allowed to follow them we are showing them a degree of trust and respect. 

Some examples of intrinsic motivation

Children want to explore and they are curious. They also want to be more grown-up. They see you doing something and they want to follow suit. And younger siblings want to be like their big brother or sister.

Your child wants to walk. They pull themselves around the furniture. They endure bump after bump. And when they manage to walk across the room they can have a huge grin as they have achieved a significant milestone.

A child may wish to comfort a person in distress. They feel sad for that person and in comforting them they feel they have something worthwhile to offer. This empathy with others can be a strong motivator both intrinsically, as their emotion is engaged, but also extrinsically, as social rewards might include friendship or affection. 

Benefits of intrinsic motivation

The main benefit of intrinsic motivation is the balance you feel within yourself. Your child is developing his own opinion of himself – who he is and what matters to him. He begins to understand that there are consequences to how he behaves. That “good” behavior will make him feel better inside. Your guidance is crucial as he learns this. Your smile and praise will be the external reward that is translated inside himself to become part of his own set of values.

Very often both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations act together, to integrate one’s personal identity with the demands and rewards society gives us.

Motivation makes our world go round. Here's the difference between intrinsic & extrinsic motivation and when to use them as a parent.
Motivation makes our world go round. Here's the difference between intrinsic & extrinsic motivation and when to use them as a parent.

What is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of us. There may be rewards like praise, a game, or a story your child will enjoy. Alternatively there may be disincentives like punishment, shouting or removal of some longed for activity (often screen times now a days).

Some factors can help us be more motivated. It’s often at the start of a job that we need that extra push to get started. So encouraging our child to begin something will make it easier for them to complete it. Make the first steps small.

The challenge needs to be within the child’s capabilities – neither too difficult nor too easy when it will be boring – not a good motivational mind-set!

Examples of extrinsic motivation

Take the example of walking across the room. If you are there beckoning him on and encouraging him, then your praise and laughter are his incentives. Both internal and external factors are pulling him on. Working together they can be very powerful.

Your disapproval will pull the other way. He may be too young to understand the danger of electric sockets. You may need to shout. Make it very clear that that that is a, “No”, and that message inhibits him poking his fingers into the holes.

As parents, your approval is the most important external incentive for your young child. Later, peer pressure becomes increasingly imperative. The need to fit in is a powerful external motivator – no one wants to be left out and live life on the side-lines. It can be dangerous position to be in, leaving your child more vulnerable grooming and abuse of any kind.

Benefits of extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation has benefits built into the task. Do this and you get that reward. It can be clear-cut and definite. This is when your children start to learn that actions have consequences. It is a preparation for life in the outside world. It also gives you some control into molding their character. 

Sometimes the reward for actions may be less clear. Time can reveal the benefits – but children as a whole are less able to look too far into the future. This is where you come in with your ability to see and plan ahead. Long-term goals that you start will gradually become habitual for your child. One example of this is the diet you provide for your offspring. If coke and pizza are your usual offerings then your child will continue to eat like this unless stronger motivation forces him to change his eating habits. As an adult, heart attacks are powerful incentives to change to a more healthy diet – but your child shouldn’t need to wait that long! 

Intrinsic motivation or extrinsic motivation. Which is better?

Independent, strong-minded individuals would say that intrinsic motivation is most important. But if they are not guided by society’s expectations then they could end up living a lonely and isolated life. As in most things a balance is needed for a well-integrated character.

Certainly, if the only motivation is that imposed upon us from the expectation of rewards, then your child will be one who can be bullied and easily led by fear or short-term rewards.  Such a child will be more at risk from drug taking or alcohol excesses, since they provide immediate “rewards” and the longer-term effects are less easily accepted, unless an inner common sense can prevail.

 As in so many areas of life in our complex and fascinating society, a mixture of self-motivation and motivation activated by external rewards are needed for a full and satisfying life. But without that inner spark, little can be achieved. 

When to Use Intrinsic Motivation

This is the time when we respect the child and let them get on with it! And it can be quite hard to sit back and let them make mistakes. You can support them and accentuate their feelings of achievement by praise – this will strengthen their pleasure in a job well done and enhance their sense of intrinsic motivation.

There are many, many things your child will naturally want to do. Milestones to achieve and satisfying targets so meet. Gradually, as your child grows more and more competent, you will be able to trust him to follow his own instincts and self-motivation.

Developing strong motivational qualities will impact upon your child’s life so helping them to attain this is part of parenting. Some children seem naturally strong-willed – and they can be challenging to bring up. Other children seem easier and more pliable and may need your help in gaining the self-confidence that is a component of intrinsic motivation. 

When to Use Extrinsic Motivation

Your child’s safety is your responsibility. The world is a dangerous place, so you will need to provide rules and regulations until he can understand the risks out there. Gradually he will come to have stronger intrinsic motivation, but while he is very young your form guidance towards independence means you will have to engage in extrinsically motivating him.

Establishing routines and schedules is one way you can use both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. Routines help children understand your expectations. It makes the boundaries of acceptable behavior clear. It provides him with a structure to help him meet life’s many challenges – a safe place to consult and a framework for you to help him on his way.

You will need to be consistent in your use of external motivation – and always fair. Negotiating the different allowance for different ages of children is one minefield. But simply explaining that you are allowing Rodney to go the bed an hour later is “not because you love him more but because he is two years older and that when you are the same age you too will go to bed later if you wish”. 

Safety First

Where safety is involved then until your child can grasp the dangers in certain actions extrinsic motivation provided by you is imperative. This extends from infants and toddlers exploring the home with all its risks of electrocution, falling, or burns, and more to the teenager taking the risks inherent in that age group – internet, dating – and driving. Young drivers take risks. Their brain is not fully developed until the early twenties.  The part that makes responsible decisions in the frontal lobes still has become fully formed. The motivations for teens are not the same as those of mature adults. And you may have to provide firm boundaries.

But as you apply external rewards and consequences on your children you are preparing them to take on the inner responsibility of internal motivation as they grow and mature. 

Final thoughts

For a child the day is long. The grand age of twenty may seem ancient to a youngster. So it’s natural that rewards need to follow the action closely. Any delay is not effective in teaching your child to get things done and not to procrastinate. (Some children are excellent procrastinators and are little experts at diverting your attention away from your goal!)

We have looked at the source of motivation. Dopamine, the “happy hormone” that speeds us on our way. We have looked at the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and discussed the importance of each on our children’s development both as to developing a complete identity within themselves and as becoming an integrated part of society. 

While your child is young then you will need to apply extrinsic motivation, sticks and carrots, to keep him safe – from babyhood right up to the age at which he is legally able to get a license to drive a motorbike.

Motivation is the dynamo that pushes mankind along. We need a balance between our own integral intrinsic motivation and that applied by society, our external motivation. When we understand both as parents we can help our children become well-balanced individuals who can take their place in society. 

Which type of motivation works best for your kids? Share your experience in the comments!

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