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  • We often try to motivate teens with rewards and punishment—but there are a lot of problems with that approach. Tweet This
  • Fostering children's autonomy and internal motivation is ultimately better for them than carrot-and-stick parenting. Tweet This
Category: Child Care, Parents

What motivates a teenager? The answer is pretty easy: fun stuff. Friends, movies, music, friends, electronic devices and social media, friends, sleeping in, and friends.

What doesn’t motivate a teenager? That’s easy too: anything boring. That would be cleaning up, studying, practicing musical instruments, exercising...

As we try to motivate teens to do more of the boring stuff, the most basic approach we can use is carrots and sticks. Quick-fix, reward-and-punishment motivation means you remove privileges when your children don’t do as they’re told, and you give them bonuses when they do. If the kids haven’t done their chores, they don’t get their electronic devices. If they have done their chores, they get pocket money (and devices, etc.). In theory, this could work just fine. But parents struggle every day to put it into practice.

Most parents have to constantly remind, nag, and cajole their kids about what they’re supposed to do. They have to threaten the removal of privileges seemingly every five minutes. They have to check to make sure that the assigned jobs have been done—and done right! In other words, while in theory the carrot-and-stick approach sounds simple, in practice it’s a pain in the rear, and it takes daily (or hourly) supervision.

Rewarding and punishing children based on their actions can send the message that our love is conditional.

Alfie Kohn, in his provocative book Punished by Rewards, highlights several other problems with the carrot-and-stick approach:

First, the promise of a reward is also a promise of a punishment. Implicit in every promise of a privilege is the threat that the privilege or reward can be taken away. When we tell our children to do a chore to receive the gold star on the chore chart, or pocket money, or a wi-fi password, we are implicitly threatening that should they choose not to do the chore, they will be punished. (This is precisely why many of us make the promise, by the way.)

Second, using rewards and punishments is bad for your relationship. Children often perceive that rewards mean approval, and approval means love. Rewarding and punishing our children based on their actions can thus send the message that our love is conditional. Whether this is the case or not, it’s what they perceive. And when children perceive that they are not loved, they tend to make poor choices and struggle to flourish.

Third, it ignores reasons! When we use rewards and punishments as our central motivational modus operandi, we fail to recognize the reasons why our child may not be motivated. Rewards and punishments are quick-fix gimmicks. We need to work at the root of the issue rather than plastering over it with a quick fix. Experience teaches us that quick fixes come undone, and problems re-surface, often worse than at first.

Fourth, intrinsic motivation is undermined. Promising a goody (or making a threat) removes the focus on the task and puts it on the outcome. Our children are not motivated for the task. They are motivated for the reward, or they are motivated to avoid the punishment, so they’ll put in the smallest amount of effort possible. They’ll only do as you ask if they’re promised a reward (or the avoidance of punishment), and as they put in less effort and become even less motivated, the rewards have to increase.

Rather than using carrots and sticks, try to instill motivation within your child.

So what do you do instead?

Rather than using carrots and sticks, try to instill motivation within your child. That’s a slow process that you develop through having conversations with your kids and setting a great example.

Let’s look at a few common areas of concern. First, say your teenager is reluctant to study. Have them look at the big picture. Ask, “what do you want to be/do/have?” Once they’ve got a vision for the future, then you’re on your way. The math assignment may not directly relate to becoming a vet, but math grades will affect what they can attend, so it’s worth working for. The biology exam may be useless for your daughter who wants to be a pilot, but it will affect her GPA so it’s worth the effort.

If your teen doesn’t have specific academic or career goals yet, find out what interests them. Encourage them to do volunteer work at the race track or the mechanic shed, or the horse school, or the music store. Our kids have strengths. Guide them to those opportunities and they’ll be motivated.

Another common struggle for parents is getting teens to clean their rooms and pick up after themselves. For most teens, cleanliness is simply not important. That doesn’t mean they don’t have to clean up. So have a conversation. Couch it in terms of your values and their responsibility. Let them know that you’re paying for them to live in your home and while you don’t expect perfection, you do expect a minimum standard. Discuss, together, what that minimum standard is, and how you can achieve it. If we set the expectations clearly and early, we can continue to work with our children to achieve the outcomes we agreed on. Teens may never have much intrinsic motivation here, but they can gain a sense of contribution over entitlement.

Remember, as well, the power of appreciation. When the children have done as they were asked, let them know you’re grateful. Point out what you see and how it makes you feel. This is highly motivating for kids of any age: we all like to hear that we’ve made someone happy or grateful.

A third source of conflict with your kids may be exercise. But even kids who aren’t into athletic activity can enjoy exercise. As with academic work, you’ve just got to find their strengths. Some people only exercise when it’s social, so team sports may work well. Some people just need to be measured so they can track their progress (via distance, time, heart rate, weight, etc.). Measure their progress and as things improve, the success will be motivating.

These approaches can take more effort and require more constant adjustments than doling out rewards and punishments. But the research is clear: the more we can foster our children’s autonomy and internal motivation, and the less we rely on our own power (via carrots and sticks) to make them do what we want, the better the long-term outcomes will be.

Dr. Justin Coulson is the author of What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family. He and his wife have six children. Find him on Facebook. A version of this article first ran on kidspot.com.au.