I have chosen to have a relationship with my children that is free of punishment or rewards. We don’t have rules and I don’t force my children to do what I want. It might sound crazy to many people but it works wonderfully well for us. As I discussed in my last post, I don’t push my children to do things that I think will be good for them. So how do they learn to stick at things? Do they manage to master new skills that require a lot of effort? Amazingly enough, they do!
I recognize that many skills and disciplines require many years of dedicated practice to master and memory of a substantial body of facts. Learning can require substantial effort. Sometimes this process is not a huge amount of fun. Is it true that children will not have the motivation to learn, persist and master complex skills without either being coerced or rewarded to do so by their parents or teachers? How will they learn to stick at things that are difficult and get the satisfaction and benefit of mastery?
My answer to this is all about motivation. Most of us assume that there is a single thing called “motivation” which children can have either a lot of or not enough of. I have learned that there are actually two different kinds of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation basically means that you like what you are doing for its own sake. You are motivated from within. Extrinsic motivation means that you are doing something as a means to an end – in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment. As Alfie Kohn says in his book Punished by Rewards, “It is the difference between reading a book because want to find out what happens in the next chapter and reading because you’ve been promised a sticker or a pizza for doing so.” Children stick at things best when they are intrinsically motivated to do so.
What inspires us to keep working at something, even when the work is difficult? When does intrinsic motivation arise? Choice is the key. When a child makes their own choice to learn something and they enjoy what they are doing they will stick at it. They will deal with their frustrations and get over the hurdles. When they do they will feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
I agree with Dawn Cowan who writes that to stick at something it must be personally meaningful and we must feel a sense of autonomy in pursuing the task. It must be something that grabs our attention and stimulates us to learn more. It can also be something that arises out of a desire to help others or make a contribution.
Most children learn one of the most amazing, complex and difficult skills of their lives entirely through their own internal motivation. They learn to talk. Mastery of the English language is a massive task and yet children need no rewards or even praise to achieve speaking fluently. They are motivated from within by a desire to communicate with others and to express themselves. This amazing internal motivation to learn does not just disappear after they learn to walk and talk. It is always there to pull them into new exciting projects.
When we are pulled from within at the deepest level it can be the arising of a true passion or calling in life. We each have a desire to discover and express our unique gifts. To see the gifts and the passions developing in my children is amazing to watch. When children are intrinsically motivated to learn all they need is support. External rewards are not only unnecessary, they can really get in the way.
Children don’t need to be rewarded to learn. They can’t help it. We are all born innately curious about the world around us. Young children play with words, numbers, concepts and ideas. They ask questions incessantly. This innate curiosity and desire to learn can be eroded by rewards. Rewards are a form of external motivation. They can be very effective in the short term but fail in the long term. In Punished by Rewards Alfie Kohn draws on decades of psychological research to make the point that the more you reward someone for doing something, the more they loose interest in whatever it is they have to do to get the reward. One of the reasons for this is that the very act of offering the reward signals to kids that the activity is not interesting. Rewards are also a method of control. Like everyone else, children do not like to be controlled and manipulated. They are unlikely to develop a deep commitment to an activity if they are only externally motivated.
A wonderful thing about humans is that intrinsic motivation is just there. We just have to discover where it will lead us. As parents, we don’t need to motivate our children to stick at things. If we provide them with a rich environment, lots of opportunities to try new things and our own attention and support they will learn. They will choose new challenges and they will stick with at least some of them. We get to share their joy and satisfaction when they finally master the skills and knowledge that they have been striving for.