Don’t Foster A Dependance On Motivation, Foster Discipline

Don’t Foster A Dependance On Motivation, Foster Discipline

Plenty of folks have purchased one of those little chores charts that were originally only a sheet of notepaper on the fridge when you were a kid but are now laminated and brightly colored. Before you give your elementary school child that gold star sticker to put on their “I swept the floor” spot, think again. Using rewards as motivation might not be the healthiest habit to foster in young children as there tends to be a lack of self-discipline as they grow older. However, using rewards to produce good behavior is still considered a very effective psychological tactic. It goes by the name “operant conditioning,” and it’s essentially instinctual. The idea is, obviously, if you reward a behavior, then it’s more likely to occur again. Whispering “good kitty” when the cat eats it’s food and offering the dog a treat after performing a trick is the exact same thing. People use it on an everyday basis for themselves because it works. But is it good for you?  

The Main Problem

The problem with the operant conditioning system is fundamentally why and how it works. What this does is foster entitlement. While there’s plenty of intergenerational finger-pointing over who is the most entitled, it doesn’t really matter because it still exists and we all exhibit this rather poor behavior. Every time someone used operant conditioning on you as a child you learned to expect a reward for a good behavior, not enjoy the reward from the behavior. Thus, if that person stopped giving you that reward for the behavior, it’s likely that you stopped the behavior altogether. That means that to get that behavior to start up again, you’ll have to start rewarding them for this simple task, which will eventually turn into an expectation that simple task accomplishment deserves minor rewards for their time. The other unhealthy part of teaching children is that when you ask them to do something in the future that might be considered a favor or a good behavior on their part, they’ll ask you that dreaded question “what will you give me for it.” Suddenly, you’re negotiating their price for cleaning their room and you’ve given up your authority over your 10-year-old.

The Intrinsic Value Deficit

Perhaps the most concerning result of this practice is the undervaluing of intrinsic motivation for children. If everytime they do something good they get a chocolate bar or some form of physical (extrinsic) motivation for exhibiting a certain behavior, they won’t develop any intrinsic reward for themselves. That means that when they perform some empathetic task and are kind to someone, they won’t get that warm fuzzy feeling that makes you feel like you did something good. An extreme example of this behavior is, of course, if children are motivated by physical items to motivate themselves for schooling. Learning will eventually become a thing that is only based on receiving rewards for themselves and they’ll never become lifelong learners, or develop a taste for knowledge at all.

The Study

This hypothesis that’s entirely rooted in common sense was displayed in one of the more famous studies surrounding the topic by a couple of researchers who asked some college students to work on a puzzle in a lab. The researchers informed half of the students that they would be paid for the completion of the puzzle while the others were told they would not be paid. After working for some time, the researchers instructed the students to take a small break and left the kids alone to do whatever they wanted, including work on the puzzle if they’d like. In support of the theory of intrinsic value, the kids who weren’t being paid worked on the puzzle through the “break.” The researchers concluded that in most cases, the extrinsic reward depletes the intrinsic reward involved with anything.

It’s Not Just College Kids

Researchers, of course, tested this on elementary students as well. Specifically, it was pre-school aged children that the researchers presented the opportunity to do a fun drawing activity. They could use a set of nice markers if they wanted a certificate with a ribbon and gold stamp. The other group of children were given the markers to play with and were given the certificate as a surprise in the middle. The children who received the certificate as a surprise returned to the drawing while the children who drew for the certificate stopped drawing with the markers after they’d received their certificate. Since both of these studies were conducted, there have been hundreds more with similar circumstances testing the same thing and finding the same answer. A physical reward completely removes any emotional reward.


This doesn’t mean that you should never reward your children with physical items, after all, we live in a material world. Instead, we suggest that you have a strategy behind providing them physical rewards. If you’re trying to instill in your child a value or behavior that you want them to hold for years to come, an extrinsic reward is probably not the key to the castle you’re looking for. When it’s something like learning or obtaining knowledge try explaining the joy of learning and try establishing learning goals that are an accomplishment in and of themselves. Promote the inherent value by encouraging reading fiction and general self-improvement that teaches kids to feel good about themselves for doing something good. There are other forms of intrinsic rewards that can even go with punishments. For example, if you’re attempting to instill honesty in your child, actually follow through on the promise of not punishing a child if they tell the truth about what they’ve done. They put intrinsic value behind telling the truth because they avoided punishment.

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