Thursday, July 20, 2006

Carrot and stick - how to motivate our children using Learning Styles

There are two types of people in the world: those who are internally motivated, and those who are motivated by external means. That’s according to the Creative Learning Systems’ learning styles found on

It’s very easy to get an externally motivated child to do her homework, put away her shoes and be nice to her baby brother: all you have to do is promise her a reward. The reward can be verbal (you’re such a good girl, I’m proud of you), material (a chocolate bar if you allow your kids sweets), accrued (a star-chart with a well defined end-goal, such as a pair of skates once the child accumulates 20 stars) or a withdrawal of privileges (no TV after dinner if you don’t load the dishwasher). In the old days, there was also active punishment (the stick approach), but I’m glad to say that’s being phased out to the point of being made illegal in some countries.

(Do you have an opinion as to whether it should be illegal for parents to smack their children? If so, please comment at the bottom of this blog.)

It’s even easier to get an internally motivated child to do her homework, put away her shoes and be nice to her baby brother: you don’t need to do anything at all, because your child will do it all out of her internal sense of “I want to get this done”. That’s provided she herself sees that homework, putting away the shoes and being nice to the baby brother as important matters worthy of engaging her internal motivation system over. If she doesn’t see them as important, you have a huge problem on your hands, because no amount of chocolate or withholding of privileges is going to have an effect on her.

So, what do you do as a parent? The first step is, naturally, to establish what type of motivation works on your child, and to what extend: your child may have a strong or a slight preference for external motivation, she may have a non-preference for it (in which case it’s really not a good idea to offer her external rewards), or she may be flexible in this area (in other words, a combination of internal and external motivation would work well on her).

If your child is strongly internally motivated, all you can do is continue to instil your values in her and hope that her internal motivation system will make her do the right things. Particularly if she also has a non-preference for external motivation and would be unhappy with an external reward system, your task as a parent is very hard indeed.

If your child is externally motivated, set up a reward system for her. But - I hear you argue - isn’t it wrong to have to reward my child for doing something that’s her duty? Well, let me ask you this: how many hours would you spend at your place of work if you didn’t get paid for it? Also, the rewards need be nothing more than a clear and positive acknowledgement from you of the fact that your child did indeed perform her duty. It’s amazing how far you can go with loving and sincere praise.

Which brings me to the topic of over-praising. It’s currently fashionable to give your children praise whether or not they really deserve it. In my opinion, that’s wrong, very wrong, because it leads the child to believe that they need not put any effort into their tasks: whether they try hard or not, they will hear “good work, great drawing, you’re so clever!”.... In particular, internally motivated children will look with disdain at such empty rewards.

So, make sure the praise is deserved, sincere and specific. Avoid general feedback: “this is wonderful” in favour of “I like the way you drew the scales on the mermaid’s tail”, “Thank you for sharing your bun with your brother” and “I’m proud of all the effort you put into cleaning your room”.

And do remember the best praise of all, to be used on internally and externally motivated children alike: “I love you”. You can make it as general and as frequent as you like!

No comments: