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Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation: How To Best Encourage Your Kids

September 25, 2020

Most parents know that getting kids to do things on their own—be it homework, chores, or helping around the house—might be a struggle. You might even be asking yourself, Ugh, how do I motivate them to do anything? on a regular basis. This constant battle is no fun for anyone. 

So, finding a way to authentically motivate kids becomes paramount. However, "Motivation is complicated and has many influences," Aliza Pressman, Ph.D., co-founding director and director of clinical programming for the Mount Sinai Parenting Center tells us. And it turns out that there are technically two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

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What do these mean, how can they help kids get the job done, and is there a style that's more effective? Well, we spoke to an expert to find out.

What is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is being encouraged to do something because of outside (extrinsic) forces. Said motivation could be positive or negative, meaning they can be encouraged to do something to receive a benefit or praise or discouraged to do something out of fear of consequences. 

Examples of extrinsic motivation: 

  • Playing a sport in order to win a prize.
  • Finishing schoolwork to be able to watch TV. 
  • Helping around the house so they can go play with friends. 
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Why you use extrinsic motivation.

Of course, there are valid reasons that you may encourage kids by dangling a prize in front of them—and, of course, actions have consequences, so often you may need to discipline them when they misbehave. Not to mention, rewards can offer a signal to your kid that they did a good job and you are proud of them, which is a good thing, no? 

"When you do not care if the child internalizes the motivation for doing something, for example, you just really want them to go to bed and stay in bed because you are so tired! You can set up a rewards system if you are OK that they aren't going to care about actually doing something," says Pressman. "Also if there is no concern that in the long run, they will be stuck needing extrinsic rewards in order to do something."

The problems with extrinsic motivation. 

However, the problem comes up when the motivation ends there. Kids, and people in general, can only operate so well if their validation comes solely from the outside. This, too, is backed up by research: In one study, toddlers were given rewards after playing with a toy—a toy they previously expressed interest in. After they were given said reward, they became less interested in the toy that they were previously interested in.

Not only that, but if you continually offer external rewards for positive behavior, you may be sending the wrong signal to your kids as they grow up: that good behavior always gets you an award—and that's simply not the way life works. This is why experts encourage you to help build intrinsic motivation when you can. 

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What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is what happens when kids act accordingly because it feels rewarding to do so. You are doing something because you want to do it, not because you're being forced to or because you are craving praise. "Intrinsic motivation means that for reasons inside of you, you are motivated to do or learn something," says Pressman. "When someone has the internal drive to do something, they feel better and have more agency over their life."

Examples of intrinsic motivation:

  • Practicing at a sport diligently because they enjoy the activity and they feel happy when they get better. 
  • Completing homework on time because it makes them feel proud when they complete their tasks. 
  • Understanding that housework helps other members of the family, and so they make sure to get their chores done. 
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How to develop intrinsic motivation.

So the problem is it's challenging to develop intrinsic motivation. Few people naturally enjoy tidying up, no? So how can you get kids to feel internal validation when said task isn't always appealing?

"Motivation comes from a set of neurochemical networks that develop over time, as a result of the experiences we have," says Pressman, noting that you can develop motivation through these experiences. "The best way to sustain motivation is to support internal drivers with the right kind of external feedback: not a lot of it, focused on process, and remember that if a child is fully internally motivated, don't interrupt it much with your external commentary or they might lose sight of their internal drive."

Her tips for developing internal motivation in kids: 

  • Help them choose achievable goals and challenge children just enough.
  • Focus the planning process, encourage kids to identify something specific that they want to accomplish. Most important is that the goals are meaningful to your child and not established by others. 
  • Remind kids to periodically monitor their behavior and consider whether they are doing the things they planned and whether these plans are achieving the goals they identified.
  • Give children agency—if they are capable of doing something themselves, let them. If they are almost capable, help them a little.
  • Give incentives/rewards only when necessary to start a new habit that is hard to motivate internally and that you aren't concerned will have long-term implications.
  • Praise process, not outcome: You want kids to be motivated for working hard and sticking with it, not for getting to the end goal.
  • Maintain a close connection, particularly with adolescents.
  • Pay attention to language—when you or a child say, "I'm not good at xyz" shift it to "I'm not good at this yet." Be open to the possibility that practice makes you smarter.
  • Monitor your own behavior: Think about how you fail in front of your kids. (We know all about being a role model for success, but what about being a good *failure* role model?) 
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The takeaway.

Encouraging kids to develop intrinsic motivation will ultimately help them in the long run find joy, value, and reward in their tasks. Of course, there is a time and place for extrinsic motivation, but it shouldn't be used as your sole incentive.

Alexandra Engler
Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director

Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.