My preference on helping a child to learn a new task is he/she must stay focused on intrinsic rewards. All external rewards whether tokens, school grades, gifts, or deliberate, manipulative praise are arbitrary; that is, they bear no direct relationship to the matter at hand. Interestingly, punishment has the very same built-in problem. For example, helping a child to learn the importance of keeping one’s room orderly and clean, while staying focused on the actual issue, would mean helping the child to appreciate the inherent rewards. This includes the ease of finding wanted items, the avoidance of health problems, especially if there are allergies, the avoidance of breakage and other accidents, and the fact that there is simply a good feeling in an orderly environment.
These kinds of explanations, if shared respectfully, will make more sense to the child than any external reward, and will also show trust in his own abilities and motivations. This approach also has the benefit of helping the parent to determine priorities. If a parent can’t explain the reason for doing something, maybe it isn’t worth the effort of helping the child to do it! In a “focused” discussion, it may be the parent who learns the most about priorities: “keeping a room spotless all the time” may be less important in the grand scheme of things than “having time to play in an unhurried way with a parent or sibling”.
Using a focused approach with an emphasis on intrinsic rewards, the parent is also free to offer the child practical tips and actual help. The parent and child remain on the same side, so that both can contribute ideas to make certain projects easier. When external rewards or punishments are used, the parent is more likely to feel that the child must perform the task alone.
When my siblings where young, I already had a clarified importance of focusing on intrinsic values. I began to believe that children could appreciate the benefits of such things as an orderly room, and I helped my siblings to identify the inherent rewards that orderliness brings. They felt free to ask for my advice and help, and I felt free to help them whenever necessary. Over time, they learnt that every effort toward cleaning a room or any other meaningful activity always brought along its own rewards. They learned that such rewards are automatic and immediate. They are grown now and their housekeeping skills and habits are better than my own.
A good rule of thumb in parenting (or in any other relationship) is that anything that keeps us on the same side as our child is more respectful and consequently will “work” better, than anything that sets up a hierarchy and puts a cold distance between us, such as parent-set standards and extrinsic rewards for “targeted behaviour”.
By staying on the same side, we express trust in our child’s ability to appreciate intrinsic rewards, and to grow to be an adult who can think for himself, set his own standards and priorities, and identify whatever inherent rewards are available through their own efforts. As someone once quoted, “raising children with an emphasis on intrinsic rewards is not a technique, a method or a trick to get them to do what the parent wants them to by subtler means, but rather a way of life, a way of living with children with real respect for their intelligence and for their being.”
The critical question is: What is it that we want? If we simply want a clean room, it may come about at an earlier age if we use rewards and punishments but there may be unintended results: fears and unfortunate associations instilled in the child, damage to the parent-child bond, and the hidden message that the child cannot be trusted to learn without external motivators. The use of external rewards is a type of control, manipulating our children to do our agenda. All methods which rely on controlling the child have a price, paid for by the child, the parent and the relationship. Damage to self-esteem and self-knowledge is the highest price.
If we want the child to learn to appreciate intrinsic rewards, to have faith in his own judgment, to believe in his own ability to determine what is truly worth doing, without seeking an authority figure it may take years longer, but it will be well worth our extra effort and patience. Parents who have taken the longer route of trusting and helping the child to gain self-motivation through a sensible appraisal of inherent rewards and values, find that this is intrinsically gainful for them as well. It is far more rewarding to the parent to raise a child to be independent, self-confident, realistic, and self-motivating, than it is to see an orderly bedroom at age six! If we use trust, patience, and gentle explanations instead of rewards or punishments, children are then free to “own” their learning and personal growth. The less authoritarian we can be, while not relinquishing our role as our children wise gentle guide, the more secure will be the learning that takes place.
Photo Credit: Scott Griessel | Dreamstime.com