Preserving Intrinsic Motivation

Posted by on Sep 11, 2010 in Parenting Advice, Parenting Education, Practical Parenting, Preserving Wholeness | 5 comments

“When unconditional love and genuine enthusiasm are always present, “Good job!” isn’t necessary; when it’s absent, ‘Good job!’ won’t help.”

Alfie Kohn


The use of punishments and rewards is not the best way to motivate people. (Especially if those people happen to be your family!)

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink lays out the overwhelming evidence that narrow Behaviorism — the use of punishments and rewards — not only is mediocre in terms of getting compliance, but more importantly is does not bring out the best in human beings.

Though the book is primarily aimed at helping business practices re-align with the scientific evidence on how people are actually motivated, the conclusions are directly applicable to understanding the inner motivational world of our kids. And in fact, much of the science quoted were studies done with children. Here is a brief summary of Pink’s review of the research on this pervasive practice:


1. Diminish performance (except in the simplest of tasks)

  • For something as simple as licking stamps and putting them on an envelope you can increase productivity by offering higher rewards for performance. For most other tasks involving any real problem solving, performance is actually diminished by pressure imposed by the presence of a reward or a punishment.

2. Crush creativity

  • Algorithmic (following a set, pre-determined pathway) solutions can be increased with carrots and sticks, but solutions requiring “out of the box” thinking or artistic endeavors are routinely diminished in quality. (These studies include inventors, scientists, and school children.)

3. Crowd out good behavior

  • Incentivizing blood donors with payments to donate their blood decreased the donor rates by half. People want to give from the heart, not by being bribed.

4. Can foster short-term thinking

  • Students paid to solve problems choose easier problems over time, and thereby ending up learning less.

5. Encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior

  • In large part, the short-term, narrowed, and self-centered thinking produced by extrinsic motivators caused our recent Wall Street-lead crash of the economy. Parents threatened with a fine for dropping their kids off late to school nearly doubled their rates of tardiness over time. Again, doing the right thing is more an issue of heart and relationship, not threats and bribes.

6. Can become addictive

  • Once rewards are used they become expected by the receiver, who often requires a bigger reward in the future to achieve the same response. The area of the brain that lights up with the anticipation of rewards is the same as in nicotine, cocaine, and amphetamine addicts.

7. The biggest flaw, and the one underlying many of the previous six is that carrots and sticks decrease intrinsic motivation.

  • Giving kids rewards for drawing decreases their likelihood to draw when no one is their to reward them. Puppeteering them with “Good job!” decreases their internal desire to do that “job” in the future, whether it’s sharing, creating, or learning.

There are two very different approaches to helping our kids toward maturity:

  • Helping our children maintain contact with their authentic motivation to do the right thing or
  • Consistently using punishments and rewards to try and produce the outcomes you want

(See the Loving Discipline Home Course for detailed description of these differences)

All of us want what is best for our kids, but what we think is best for our kids depends on what we think an ideal adult looks like.

So it is helpful to reflect on what  your deepest desires are for your child. My hope is to help people become fully themselves which involves both unique elements — the specific gifts we are here to bring — and universal human qualities and capacities such as empathy, kindness, compassion, curiosity, self-insight, and wisdom to name a few. Both of these dimensions of your child’s potential requires that their own authentic motivation is preserved. The coercive methods of extrinsic motivation do not produce any of the above qualities and, in my opinion should not be used as the primary means of helping our children grow into self-motivated, self-directed beings.

Being and becoming fully ones-Self
is the joy of a life-time.


Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Pink — drawing on the findings of Self-Determination Theory — goes on and summarizes intrinsic motivation (what I am calling authentic motivation) as consisting of three elements: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Blending his understanding with mine, here are a few guidelines for supporting the growth of these dimensions in your child:

  1. Autonomy — As much as possible, let your children feel that they are at the steering wheel of their life. Allow them to move toward what they love no matter how trivial or impractical it may seem to you, as long as no significant harm will occur from their choice. This will this increase their initiative in many areas of their life, promote greater conceptual understanding and better grades, enhance persistence in school and sports, and increase their sense of well-being. It will also go a long way in getting them to follow your lead when it really matters, as long as you are clearly the one in charge when it counts. (See Attachment is Not the elimination of Difficult Emotions, and Resilience for more on the importance of us being a loving “alpha” with our children.)
  2. Mastery — We all learn best when “riding the edge” of our current capacities — when things are challenging but not overwhelming — so help modulate the environment to support your child’s experience of “flow.” Don’t dumb them down by force-feeding them information or telling them they are “smart.” Mastery is a mindset of life-long learning, never fully attainable, and certainly not a fixed static image to preserve. Feedback is most helpful (and least harmful to intrinsic motivation) when it is focused on specific things that went well or did not, and when it is used to prompt the child’s own evaluative insights for how to improve upon the project the next time. Bringing attention to the concentration, steadfastness, and desire it took to complete a project or problem is also very helpful in building capacities of self-regulation and self-determination.
  3. Purpose — We can help our children develop “the long view” and “the big picture” in a number of ways after they have become engaged in authentically motivated projects. We can ask them (when they are not currently engaged in the task of course – don’t disrupt that flow!) what their reasons are for engaging in the project and see what they are connected to beyond “because I like it” (though that is plenty in itself!). Asking them how their interests might impact others, be useful in the world, or how it might support their own sense of fulfillment and freedom down the road can help them to connect with a larger sense of purpose in their life. Purpose is the glue that joins the mystery of our birth with the perfectly matched needs of the big, spinning madness that we call this world.


“Vocation happens when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Frederick Beuchner

Take Home: Using punishment and rewards as the primary method of disciplining a child does not support the emergence of their full potential. It is more helpful to support them in discovering and preserving their own authentic motivation, especially focusing on the dimensions of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The fruits of your restraint from carrots and sticks will be a relaxed confidence as they move out into the world with their own drive and steering wheel intact.

Note: I do not mean to suggest that all punishments or rewards are bad. The context of the relationship is a key ingredient to how these extrinsic motivators are experienced and how they affect the child’s development.




“I love this book. I wish it were packaged with every pregnancy test.”

Dean Ornish MD


  1. This is good stuff. One thing I always tried to go with when my kids did something great was to suggest that I hoped they were feeling proud of themselves (rather than just telling them that I was proud of them).

    This seemed important to me—to make how they felt about things more important than getting me to feel good about them and their behaviors.

    This is also why it’s important to give consequence, when we must, from an emotionally centered place; thus the consequence is the consequence, and can teach rather than our emotional state is the negative consequence (for more on logical consequences see:


  2. This is great material. I am a retired Director of Xavier University’s Montessorio Teacher Education Program. One of my favorite lectures is on the difference between praise and encouragement. We have become a nation of praise junkies.

    Dr. Monteesori talked about the importance of internal motivation.

    I must get this book!

  3. I am homeschooling my little boy, who is very sensitive. I feel that praising ‘good’ behaviour, intuitively, feels out of place but I find the words ‘good job’ so quickly at the tip of my tongue when I feel pleased with some behaviour in my child. Might you suggest substitute words that would be appropriate? It’ll take some doing to re-orient my mind and words but tuning in to a new vocabulary and drawing out my own futility that I KNOW this doesn’t work in my life:)

  4. Thanks for the great information!

    Natalie, I try not to say good job but sometimes it does slip out. I tend to be silent a lot or give smiles or hugs if my son seems to want something, or I may say “you did it!”. I’m not sure if that’s the right thing, but he seems proud of himself.

  5. Beth – yes, a nation of praise junkies indeed! and, as I try to point out in my latest article “Good Job!” it really depends on the context what kind of effect “praise” has on intrinsic motivation. Sugar-coated manipulative praise affects intrinsic motivation negatively for sure. But I don’t think ‘enjoying-with’ praise does unless it is constantly interruptive. Thoughts?

    Natalie – Good for you for home-schooling! Again, check out “Good Job!” for details, but basically if you are raising your boy in a field of unconditional love and giving him space to be autonomous then ‘good job!’ doesn’t do much harm at all (unless you are pushing it hard like a super-positive cheerleader!) For me, it’s just training in becoming present and one arena where I can watch for my auto-pilot behaviors. This becomes a marker for “not completely present,” which is fine somtimes, but I want to more and more present as I mature.

    Thanks for all your insightful comments!


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