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The Thing That Drives Us

"Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualise our potentials."

It’s my job to look at the ‘why’ behind the current child mental health crisis. I believe strongly in looking at the bigger picture and joining the dots to see where we can make changes that make a difference; often that finds me researching an area that is ‘uncomfortable’ for me. By uncomfortable I mean it uncovers something that I know will evoke a response and conversation, but also that makes me reflect on my own parenting; however, that’s important to do - as Brené Brown says, there is no courage without vulnerability!

I would be doing a disservice to my ethos and work (and not practising what I preach) if I stayed inside my comfort zone, and talking about rewards is definitely outside of it, yet research opens our eyes and makes us asks questions, and I love that.

When it comes to trying to develop intrinsic motivation in children, we can feel like we are fighting a losing battle. Right from birth we are sold the idea as parents that reward stickers and charts are the way to go in order to get our little darlings to do as we wish and let's be right, they work, in the short-term.

I used rewards and punishments as a way of parenting for years and years, but the more I studied ‘motivation’, the more I asked the question, ‘Why’? Why do I need to bribe or reward my child for school work/cleaning their bedroom/putting their clothes away - every.single.time? If rewards work why weren't they doing it without prompting after all these years of them being rewarded, and why were the rewards having to be bigger and better to motivate them?

We even use our love as a reward and punishment tool – we withdraw it and give it in in accordance to children’s successes and behaviour. I used the ‘time-out’ step hundreds of times back in the day without realising that the only thing my child was now thinking about was how I had made them feel and not about how they’d made someone else feel. They would sit on the step and cry not because they were thinking about what they had done (children can’t quite do that for a number of years, more than we’d like to admit) but because the situation was now about them, how they felt, how I had withdrawn my love, how confused and sad that made them feel. Children need to know that they are loved regardless, unconditionally.

There are other ways to help children learn what’s right and wrong and mostly that comes from us, our interactions and conversations with them and with each other. Do we use our love as a reward when we actually want our child to FEEL that we love them unconditionally? Evidence and research tells us that when children feel that unconditional love they are braver and feel more confident to take chances and explore.

If a child shares do we reward them for doing it, or do we let the act itself be its own reward? Do we allow the child to see how it pleased the other child and allow that to be enough? Do we trust that it will give them the intrinsic motivation to do it again and again over time or do we panic and jump in with the, “well done, that makes me so happy when you share!”, therefore rewarding them for the act. I did. My eldest used to share then look at me straight after – I think it was clear why he was sharing, for my praise. Having worked in early years settings for many, many years I have had the privilege of observing many children share, and the interaction that happens between the children themselves tells me they don’t need us in those situations!

Our whole school system is based on rewards. We have the obvious grading rewards in place, but they are essentially just a reward for achievement, not the effort put in but the result at the end. Our children always have an extrinsic motivator.

It makes me ask the question, do we encourage children to follow the path they enjoy and are passionate about, or push them towards the subject that they are naturally good at. When it came to options evening for my eldest, many years ago now, he was actively discouraged from taking certain subjects because he would "have to work hard to get a C" whereas he was encouraged to choose other subjects they were confident he could get an 'A' in "pretty easily".

By doing that are we telling our children that they should be scared of failure? That it's wrong to work hard and develop an intrinsic motivation to learn more about a subject they are genuinely interested in, because the reward is not as big at the end? What if that subject, over time and as they mature, is the thing that leads them to leading a happy and healthy working life? What if that natural curiosity around the subject led them to make an important discovery that impacted the world in some way? What if over time their motivation led them to be the very best in that field? What if the long-term ‘reward’ was so much bigger?

It does make you think doesn't it? Do we contribute to that thought process at home? I know I have over the years.

Something must change because the world in which we now live is ever evolving. Instant gratification is certainly something many children and young people desire in 2019 - even the introductions of songs have now evolved so they include lyrics quicker, to keep the younger population listening; yet this is not how we are born.

Young children are innately curious and will explore, experiment and ask countless questions (much to our annoyance after the thirteenth “But whyyyy? In the space of three minutes), but by the time they enter the school system they are taught that being able to answer the question has more value than being able to ask questions about the subject itself. We need curious children in our world – they go on to make the best inventions and solve the biggest problems and for no other reward other than they are intrinsically motivated to do so; they are passionate and curious, and they want to create something that can ‘fix it’. Yet more and more children are choosing the easy option because they know they can do it and it will lead to a certain success or reward, rather than taking the harder, more interesting, challenging route. In fact, we are encouraging them to do so.

So, what can we do as parents? We can focus on our relationships with our children. When my youngest’s behaviour feels too hot to handle it’s easy to fall back into, ‘what can I do to regain control’ mode, yet it never works It just drives us further apart and exasperates the issue. When I reflect and add more fun time in, more time together with no expectations or rewards, it always makes a difference. Always.

Do I reward since this discovery? In all honesty, sometimes, but never in advance. Gone are the days of me saying “If you do this, I’ll get you this, or we’ll do that”, gone are the days of me threatening to take time together off them if they don’t do something else I want them to do first. Has it worked? Time will tell, but when my daughter did the undercoat of our bedroom the other day, working hard until 10pm, keeping our spirits up and enjoying a pizza break with us, I saw the reward was in how she felt about herself, I thanked her for the help and that was enough. When I walked into my sons bedroom the other morning and his bed was actually made after finally deciding to stop nagging him to do so, I allowed myself a moment of, ‘wow’. The aim is for me to have happy, healthy and motivated adults who have the ability to self-regulate, I must parent in a way that supports that long-term goal for them. So time will tell, and in the meantime we will celebrate their successes but not use a carrot and stick approach, we will enjoy our time together and converse in ways that fuel our connection and that breeds contentment in the home.

The thing with rewards is it’s a way of controlling, but all the evidence tells us is that as parents we need connection to raise strong, resilient and courageous young adults, not rewards - ‘from deep contentment comes the courage to achieve’.

Food for thought.

Carrot or Connection - what drives us?

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