Motivation Moves Mountains
happy boyBy Fay Prideaux

The power of positive reinforcement to modify behaviour is well documented, so much so that motivational material has become a boom industry. As adults, we know how motivating it is to receive praise and acknowledgement, and conversely how negative comments take the wind out of our sails. The same goes for our children.

But has the pendulum swung too far in the positive direction? Are our children swamped with awards, certificates and prizes to the point where they are failing to have any impact? Are you struggling at home to keep your kids motivated and resorting to bribes and presents just to get basics done?

The good news is that motivation experts are suggesting a move away from reward systems in favour of the power of personal satisfaction: even better - it is easy to achieve.

The basic premise behind any reward system is that it adds motivation. When striving to reach an important goal, encouragement along the way enables you to find that extra energy and go that extra mile. However, if the goalpost is moved too close requiring very little effort to achieve it, the opposite actually happens – demotivation.

I can testify from my years as a primary school teacher to finding an ever increasing number of award certificates lying on the floor under students’ desks at the close of the school day. Bearing in mind that escaping from the classroom is paramount in young minds, colleagues have also noted diminished returns on rewards given to students.

The long term effectiveness of extrinsic awards such as certificates, star charts, prizes and possessions is questionable. Alfie Kohn, author on human behaviour, parenting and education, challenges the worth of tangible reward systems. His book Punished By Rewards (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) is critical of any system where children work towards and external bonus. He writes: “They’re not sustainable. It hurts intrinsic motivation.”

He offers a simple three step alternative:

  1. Say nothing: Praise may not be necessary in every situation.
  2. Say what you saw: A simple evaluation free statement (e.g. I noticed you put your shoes on by yourself today) tells your child that you noticed.
  3. Talk less, ask more: Asking “What was the hardest part of your project?” acknowledges your interest in their work and their efforts.

Alexander Kjerulf, author, speaker and consultant on the topic of happiness at work, also extols the virtue of intrinsic motivation. He defines ‘intrinsic’ as simply wanting to do something as opposed to ‘extrinsic’ when someone else wants you to do something. Kjerulf’s latest book Happy Hour is 9 to 5, (further info at builds on the idea that personal satisfaction comes from within and is the key to long term motivation.

So how can we begin to turn the tide to intrinisic motivation? These guidelines form a simple starting springboard: acknowledge excellence, encourage genuine effort and enthusiasm and don’t be afraid to tell it like it is for cherubs who are doing the bare minimum.

10 tips for Rewards that work

Vary the rewards

Take time to plan a variety of rewards. Our materialistic world makes it difficult to limit exposure to the latest gizmos and gadgets, but try working towards experiences as an alternative. They can be as simple as a special sleepover with close friends or simple quality time alone with just one parent; worthy rewards that will be highly valued in time poor households. Encouraging children to develop their own benchmarks for achievement will prevent over reliance on you for a final verdict on their behaviour.

Dollars can be dangerous

Placing a dollar value on effort sets a dangerous precedent. Children over time can perceive money as being the best reward or the only reward worth working towards. Doing your best simply because it is your own benchmark builds character. Helping out around the house to make another family member happy is a reward in itself if noticed and acknowledged. Monetary rewards are best used sparingly.

Role Reversal

One of the best ways to learn is to take a turn in the driver’s seat. Invite your children to set a goal that you as a parent can work towards. Let them be the judge of whether you have earned your reward on completion of the work. You’ll be surprised at what hard taskmasters they become when the tables are turned. A great learning opportunity that empowers all involved.

Be Consistent

Children are wired to respect routine. When you are clear with your expectations you are more likely to get the desired behaviour. Develop a consistent approach and an awareness of equal recognition of siblings. Feelings of favouritism can be divisive. If age specific rewards are part of your program let younger siblings know they will receive the same as they get older. One rule for all makes for fair play and respect.

Diversions Work

Add an element of fun to menial tasks that will engage interest and take their mind off the task. Music works well – play their favourite CD and challenge them to complete one job per track. ‘Beat the music’ gives them a timeframe for carrying out a task. Start with domains that have personal relevance, such as tidying their rooms.

Contracts for Co-operation

Using written contracts works well for older children. Collaboration is a powerful tool and a contract that outlines tasks and timeframes has a high chance of success. Getting children to sign it and placing it on the fridge as a permanent reminder of family responsibilities keeps kids focused and on track.

Stick to your guns

Kids are masters of manipulation at times, so be mindful that if they don’t deliver their part of the bargain, neither should you. Resist the urge to give a reward for half baked efforts. Your power will be undermined and future commitment is almost guaranteed to be less. You’ll only have to withhold once to send a clear and consistent message on expectations.

Mirror real life

Resist acknowledging ordinary or mainstream behaviour as it can become a minefield. Children may eventually ‘down tools’ and become less productive and motivated unless there is something in it for them. Weekly chores that are part of family life are best regarded as simply ‘pulling your weight.’ Efforts above and beyond are worthy of acknowledgement. Teaching your children the difference is invaluable.

Reality check

Young minds are constantly being bombarded with instant gratification. An important life lesson is to realize that we can work hard at something but not achieve the desired outcome. That is part of life and an important lesson. Talk to your kids about short term pay offs and long term satisfaction and the difference. For older boys sporting heroes can be great examples.

Family Code

Encourage all family members to acknowledge each other’s efforts. If comments of acknowledgement are a constant part of your communication, your children will mirror your behaviour in the long term. You are the constant role model.