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The Truth about Motivating Your Kids

Reward me and I’ll work harder.

Isn’t that what most of us have been taught about motivation?

From the office, to the playing field, to homes everywhere, it’s common knowledge that trophies, sticker charts and cold hard cash will enhance performance.

But is that really the case?

According to author Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, science tells a different story.

A number of experiments performed over the last 60 years have revealed that rewards actually have a negative effect on performance.

Scientists Harry Harlow, and later Edward Deci, found that when you introduce a reward, the focus shifts from performing a task for the joy of the activity itself to doing it more for the reward.

Rewards work like a shot of caffeine. You do get an instant increase in performance. But not only does the effect soon wear off, it’s also then difficult to find the same motivation you had before the reward was given.

Case in point: Allowance for chores


To illustrate the point, let’s say your child takes out the recycling weekly because he knows it’s his job. He does it because he knows he needs to pull his weight and that teamwork helps the family run smoothly.

Then you try an experiment.

You say you’re experimenting with the idea of giving an allowance and that you’ll now give him $5 to take out the recycling, along with some other chores, each week.

At first he’s excited. He has visions dancing in his head of new Pokemon cards and candy he could buy at Target.

Then a couple of weeks go by. Now getting $5 for chores just seems normal. Not particularly motivating. The novelty has worn off. Then, you say, the experiment is over.

No more cash for chores.

But, you say, you still need to take out the recycling.  Now he’s bummed. He feels entitled to the cash. He’s Mr. Sulky when it’s time to do chores.

The reward experiment bombed. Linking allowance to chores seldom motivates a child to do the task.

According to Deci, anyone who’s interested in motivating children or employees should not concentrate on using external rewards.

In work, he says, pay employees enough to take money as an issue off the table. Then focus on the areas that are most motivating, i.e. challenging work and a great team.

According to Pink, there are three main components of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Let’s look at each one.

Autonomy: Letting your kids be self-directed, in age appropriate ways, is motivating

Think of autonomy as self-direction and the opposite as parental control. As kids get older, they can handle more and more autonomy.

Parental control is absolutely necessary for babies. They are virtually helpless and they rely on us to get all of their needs met.

Toddlers need a little more wiggle room, but still need constant guidance and control.

The preschool stage is where the autonomous rubber starts to meet the road. We start ‘scaffolding’ or giving teaching cues when needed, as our kids start to master tasks on their own.

Without stepping in and directly controlling the situation, we can cue our kids with scaffolding questions like, “What happens next?” “How did you do it last time?” “How do you think you could solve this problem?” “How could you find the information you need?”

By asking kids questions, we give them the space and time to go within and retrieve answers internally, to build confidence in relying on themselves.

If they don’t have the answer, they can ask us for help.

As kids go into elementary school, middle school and beyond, they’re ready for increasingly challenging tasks and greater autonomy. According to recent studies, autonomy promotes better grades, more persistence at school and in sports, higher productivity, less burnout and a greater sense of well-being.

The goal is that by age 18, our kids will have mastered many aspects of a flourishing life, by becoming more and more autonomous and skilled along the way.

Mastery: Practice makes progress

According to Harvard’s Teresa Amabile, the single greatest motivator for people is making progress in their work. There are a few key ingredients to making progress.

The first is a “growth mindset,” a term coined by scientist Carole Dweck which means holding a belief that progress and growth are possible.

Parents who hold the growth mindset believe that their kids are capable of achieving great things when they put in the effort. Nothing is fixed. Research has shown that even IQ can increase over time.

This mindset values effort, challenge, progress, creating goals, and seeking helpful feedback.

In the growth mindset, we’re all students of life. The learning never ends, no matter our age.

Deliberate practice is also key in motivating kids

Mastery also requires what performance expert Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice;” effort to improve performance in a specific area.

Ericsson says “Deliberate practice is about changing your performance, setting new goals, and straining yourself to reach a bit higher each time.”

In Anders’ theory, characteristics we once believed to come from innate talent are actually the result of intense practice for a minimum of 10 years.  Sociologist Daniel Chambliss calls this “the mundanity of excellence.”

Mastery is a study in day in, day out dedication, even when you don’t feel like it.

Part of this is repetition. According to Pink, basketball greats don’t shoot 10 free throws at the end of team practice; they shoot 500.

What if we apply the same level of focus and determination to our home life and the psychological environment we’re creating to raise competent kids?

Think of all the things we can teach our kids through deliberate practice:

• how to take care of your body (bathing, exercise, eating well)
• how to communicate respectfully and have good relationships
• how to treat others with kindness
• how to solve problems
• how to work hard and give your best effort
• how to persevere when the going gets tough
• how to kindle a love of learning and value education
• how to forgive when someone does you wrong
• how to help and serve those less fortunate
• how to stay organized and keep a clean environment
• how to play and have fun
• how to pitch in and be a team player

Wouldn’t you want to hire someone who had deliberately and purposefully practiced these skills for years before leaving home?

Wouldn’t you want your child equipped with these psychological tools before heading out on their own?

Purpose: Call your kids to a greater purpose

When we’re first teaching kids to be self-directed, we tell them how to do something. But it’s also critical to tell them why.

According to Pink, people who work autonomously toward mastery perform at very high levels, and perform even better when working toward a purpose greater than themselves.

Warning: Deep philosophical question:

What is your family’s purpose? What do you stand for and hope to contribute to the world? How would you encapsulate it in a few sentences?

Stephen Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, recommended creating a family mission statement.

Creating a family mission statement was, according to Covey, the most transforming event in his family’s history.

According to Covey, “For the most part, families don’t have the kind of mission statement so critical to organizational success. Yet family is the most important fundamental organization in the world.”

A family mission statement is like a compass that helps determine our direction. It’s like an inner GPS that helps us keep our destination clear.

It gives the family a sense of stewardship, that we are responsible and accountable for how we handle things. It calls family members to a higher, unified purpose.

Covey said “Putting principles first has given a sense of appropriate priority to everything else.”

He suggested sitting down as a family and brainstorming the following questions.

• What kind of family do we really want to be?
• What is the purpose of our family?
• What kind of feeling (or energy) do we want to have in our home?
• How do we want to treat one another and speak to one another?
• What things are truly important to us as a family?
• What are the principles and guidelines we want our family to follow?
• What are our responsibilities as family members?
• Who are our heroes? What is it about them that we like and would like to emulate?
• How can we contribute to society as a family and become more service-oriented?
• What kind of home would you like to invite your friends to?
• What embarrasses you about our family?
• What makes you feel comfortable here?
• What makes you want to come home?
• What makes you feel drawn to us as your parents so that you’re open to our influence?
• What makes us feel open to your influence?
• What do we want to be remembered by?
• What gives us a sense of ‘we’
• What promises do we want to make to each other?
• What kind of strength and abilities will our children need to have in order to be successful when they’re grown?

Part of Covey’s vision for his family was to, “gather together at the dinner table at the end of the day and regroup, share experiences, laugh, bond, philosophize, and discuss values. We wanted our children to enjoy and deeply appreciate each other, to do things together, and to love being with each other. “

What vision do you have for your family?

Start developing your own family mission statement with these steps:

1. Step One: Call a family meeting, for 10 minutes each week if children are young, and brainstorm the questions above. It’s important that all family members are included in the process of creating the mission statement so that they buy in. Make it fun and give it time.

2. Step Two: Write the family mission statement.

3. Step Three: Use it to stay on track. Put it on the fridge, don’t ignore it. Translate the vision into day-to-day moments. Build trust in every interaction.

Please share what you come up with in the comments section, which you can access by clicking here and scrolling down.