I stared in horror through the doorway of my daughter’s room at the unbelievable scene of devastation! A tornado had apparently descended on her quarters in the night, scattering clothes, papers, makeup and turtle food like confetti. I was filled with panic that perhaps this intense and highly localized weather event had injured my beloved child. Desperately, I raced to the tangle of blankets on her bed, which was miraculously more or less intact. I sobbed with relief when I realized that she was alive!
In fact, she was peacefully sleeping.
Then I looked into my other daughter’s room. In addition to the same tornado, it had apparently also been visited by an earthquake, a pack of rabid food scattering wolves and some sort of interruption of normal gravity. Please, dear reader, don’t hyperventilate with concern for the life of this child. Let me assure you that she, too, had survived what must have been a harrowing night.
Luckily as a parent I have a magic tool for situations like this. I say “can you clean up your room?” And then, with varying levels of enthusiasm, my kids will dutifully start tidying. But why, after me saying perhaps 1,000 times “don’t put your clothes on the floor” do they even need a reminder?
According to science, the answer is simple: it’s because they don’t want to.
Extrinsic Motivation Versus Intrinsic Motivation
I feel a little embarrassed to admit that apparently my parenting has thus far failed to produce spontaneously tidy children. Sure, I can make them keep their room clean, but the very instant the extrinsic dad motivation disappears, they are left with their own intrinsic motivation. Which sometimes is squat.
In the hope or expectation that perhaps your child also might have one or two areas in which their intrinsic motivation doesn’t match your hopes, dreams and expectations for their future self-managing adult self, I’d like to use this blog post to reexamine what science says motivates kids (and grown ups!)
Extrinsic Motivation, aka “Dadivation” is often the familiar Carrots and Sticks.
Stick: “Clean your room or you can’t see a friend.”
Carrot: “Clean your room and you can have a friend over.”
Extrinsic motivation isn’t all bad! Friends, respect, and money to pay your rent are way more fun than criticism, scorn and being fired from your job.
But the problem with Dadivation or Momivation is simple; we won’t be around for most of our kid’s life! In fact, we’re already not around–they are coloring and lining up for juice boxes without us by the time they hit Pre-K.
And in the long run they are only going to do what one person wants to them to do–themselves! They will be driven by intrinsic motivation.
According to the psychological theory of Self Determination, people–including not only normal people like you and I, but also children and even teenagers–have 3 essential needs which they are striving to meet. They are:
- Autonomy: a sense of control over our own choices.
- Competence: a feeling of skill and mastery–or at least a feeling of progress.
- Relatedness: a sense of belonging or connectedness.
I’d like you to perform a thought experiment. Imagine that your child is playing Fortnite with friends, or making a TikTok video to post for their friends (and humanity at large).
Who’s telling them what to do? Nobody! They are autonomous.
Are they good at what they are doing? Well, if you haven’t played Fortnite before, see how long you last. Need help? There are 83,000,000 Google results for “how not to get killed in Fortnite.” They are competent, and getting better.
Are they feeling a sense of belonging or relatedness? Well, they are talking with friends, getting likes and feedback, and enjoying a shared world with their friends. They are related.
Just because they don’t have the long view that we do doesn’t mean they are crazy. They are meeting their human needs!
Just then, Dad shows up and says “clean your room!” They are being bossed around, they feel like slobs, and their friends and interests are elsewhere. Cleaning their room is NOT checking their boxes!
Something really strange happened Friday night. A daughter asked my wife if she could have friends over on Saturday. Since we had family plans for Sunday, my wife said “sure, as long as you get your homework and chores done and clean your room first.”
And then she did her homework, chores and cleaned her room Friday night and Saturday morning with limited additional parental involvement.
Was this a victory for extrinsic motivation? Or was she being autonomous (in fact, victorious in her desire to see friends), skilled (at getting what she wants from her parents, and maybe even at doing her chores), and related (she wasn’t doing her chores for us, she was doing them to be with her friends.)
Our Parenting Assignment
The good news is that our kids already have great internal motivations. They want be their own bosses, they want to feel competent, and they want to be connected to people and ideas they care about.
The bad news is that as parents we can see that our kids sometimes meet these needs in ways that don’t line up with what is best for them in the long run–and even worse, sometimes are having trouble meeting those needs in any way.
Our challenge is to structure, align and explain what we believe is in our kids’ best interest (like doing homework, practicing or even taking out the garbage) to foster intrinsic motivation. We can do this by:
Autonomy Support: We can support our kids in being their own bosses by giving them reasons that make sense to them, giving them choices, and acknowledging and accepting disagreements.
Relatedness Support: Being involved with our kids, spending time with them, and accepting them helps meet their need for relatedness. And respecting how important their friends are and modeling and supporting healthy relationships also helps.
Competence Support: Use boundaries–not just the limits themselves, but explanations of what lies beyond the boundaries (dragons, usually) to give clear paths for success, and supply tools and skills to break skills into smaller chunks that are easier to master. Like laundry baskets!
Are you fighting with your kid about something?
Does that something provide a path for autonomy, relatedness and competence?
If not, can it?
Good luck to both of us!
Postscript, Intrinsic Motivation In The Wild
Eventually most of our kids will leave home. And then they will do whatever they decide to do. Just out of curiosity, I decided to ask my oldest son, who is now in college, for his current tidiness level.
On To Greatness, In Parenting, Music, and Life,
Founder, NYC Guitar School
Self Determination Theory: https://positivepsychology.com/self-determination-theory/
I wrote an article on External and Intrinsic Motivation previously. It’s such an important topic that I will probably write more, just to remind myself of the facts if nothing else. It’s here: https://www.nycguitarschool.com/parenting-independence-day/
Another Take On Intrinsic Motivation: https://www.tutor2u.net/business/reference/motivation-pink-three-elements-of-intrinsic-motivation
Hundreds of Articles On How To Support Intrinsic Motivation: https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/parenting/
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