“Intrinsic motivation?” Part 2

Photo by Michael Bentley via Flickr

Embrace the M&Ms and worry about “intrinsic motivation” later.

Last week, I wrote a pretty lengthy response to a question about whether parents should praise and reward their kids for everyday things. Since then, I continue to see articles written about the subject with people talking about the “harmful” side effects of praising our kids. Unreal!

I do agree with the sentiments that praise should be specific to the behavior and should absolutely match the importance of a behavior (i.e., praise for being exceptionally polite or incredibly calm under tough circumstances should be more powerful than praise for more common and well-practiced behaviors).

“You did a fine job staying within the lines” is clearly better than “good job.”

“That was a very big-boy thing you did there by staying on the sidewalk and waiting for your daddy” is obviously better than, “nice job, dude.”

I also agree, at some point, “participation trophies” or giving kids made-up honors just so they can have a certificate like everyone else in the class is a bit much. True achievements should be reinforced. If your kid was the MVP, let them get the big trophy. If your kid stood on the side of the field picking daisies and his nose (as my 4 year old did during his soccer game this weekend), he should not be mocked, but should be OK with not getting the trophy.

Exposing a child to winning AND losing (yes, I said “losing”) is important. They will experience both these things in their lives, so preparing them for it will be important.


The statements that over-doing “good jobs” and telling your daughter, “you’re a great artist” every time she puts crayon to paper somehow has a long-term harmful effect on a child’s self-esteem and decreases the chances of a child being “intrinsically motivated” is ridiculous.

Here’s the deal on this “intrinsic motivation” thing:

When people say “intrinsic motivation,” what they essentially mean is you have experienced enough positive reinforcement over the years associated with certain behaviors that it “feels good” doing it, or you “do it for the love of doing it.”

This happens over time and over the course of many experiences.

From a simple behavioral perspective, we need to kickstart these behaviors early with our children. Reinforce these behaviors early and often.

Whatever it is…being helpful, being polite, having good manners, cleaning up after themselves, or following directions, your job as a parent is to make sure your kids get good enough reinforcement (praise, rewards) to make these behaviors continue to occur again.

As these behaviors occur over the weeks, months and years, your kids will experience more natural rewards that will maintain the behaviors over time. The experiences themselves will become positive because so much reinforcement has occurred with the behaviors in the past.

So, do I care that you give your kids Skittles when they are really good and polite at the dinner table? Are you kidding me? Taste the rainbow of fruit flavors…it will not decrease their self-esteem years down the road, but will likely make the behaviors occur again next time they sit down at the table (pssst: that’s kinda what we want, huh?).

Would I ever recommend AGAINST telling your kid “good job?” or telling them they are “good kids?” Silliness… 

Praise away…be smart, but praise away. Bring the M&Ms, stickers or lollipops…These rewards will naturally fade away throughout the process or growing up. At that point they will be “intrinsically motivated,” for those who are still worried about that.

6 thoughts on ““Intrinsic motivation?” Part 2

  1. This is great! I have been reading so much lately about the harmful effects of giving praise that I’ve been wondering, hmmm…there must be a balance in here somewhere. The studies being done are compelling but instinctually it feels wrong to stay silent when my son does something extraordinary, something I wish him to repeat! I also appreciate your advice to be more specific with praise…not just saying “good Job” but pointing out what specifically was good. This I need practice with. Great post, thanks again!

  2. My wife and I had a brief conversation on this subject. Our granddaughter had spent the good part of the afternoon cleaning her room after her friends went home (she is 17) and when she was finished, my wife praised her for the good job she did, but chastised me when I did not. I tried to explain to both of them that I would not praise her for something she is supposed to do in the first place. I expect her to clean her room so she doesn’t have to sleep on a pile of clothes or trash. I went on to explain to them that the praise would come when our granddaughter stops her friends from making the room a disaster area in the first place…and wouldn’t you know it? The next time her friends spent the weekend it only took her a few minutes to straighten up instead of taking a good part of the day to clean. That was when I praised her and they hardly make a mess now when they come. Now her friends control their behavior as well and do not make so much of a mess.

  3. I think that it is okay to praise our kids to a certain extent but when it comes to things like doing homework or household chores I think that is in the category with things to do and sometimes it is nice to give them a treat or something special but not on a regular basis.

  4. Pingback: The expectation of reward for good behavior – Behavior Management Consultants

  5. Pingback: THE EXPECTATION OF REWARD FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR – Behavior Management Consultants

  6. Pingback: THE EXPECTATION OF REWARD FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR – Behavior Management Consultants

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