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Carrots are only for Horses! How to motivate kids intrinsically

The 4 Cs of Intrinsic Motivation

Why Intrinsic? Carrots and Sticks (Rewards and Punishments) only influence action temporarily and studies have shown that even rewards can materially dampen future motivation to do the right things! A study was done on young children and drawing pictures. First they observed that some children just enjoyed drawing pictures more than others. Then they told the kids that they would give them a reward for every picture they drew. The surprising results is that after a couple of days, the children drew less pictures when offered rewards for them! Even the ones who had previously loved drawing were drawing less than before. Rewards can get some action temporarily but it can actually dampen it for the long run. Here are 4 Cs of intrinsic motivation to help you foster happy, motivated kids!


  • Choice

Everyone wants some control over their own life and choices and children are no different. There are times as the parent that we have to decide for them for their own safety or good, but the more choices we give them, the better when it comes to helping them to want to do things that they might not want to do. This is variable by age of course, but the older they get, the more choices you can give them and that will not only increase intrinsic motivation but also teach problem solving and that there are always consequences to their actions-whether good or bad. For example, you can say, would you like to pick up the cars or the puzzle?

  • Challenge

Without challenge, tasks are boring and have no intrinsic reward. The first time a child completes a puzzle without help, she will be very happy with her accomplishment and want to do it again and again; but when it becomes very easy, the child no longer has interest in it. It is boring and they are off to a new challenge. So making a task have just the right amount of challenge but not too difficult is a great way to foster intrinsic motivation. Gamifying a task can help with this. For example, instead of just saying, "Let's clean up the room." Say, "Yesterday we cleaned up in less that 3 minutes! Let's see if we can beat it today and do it in 2 minutes!"

  • Competence

Just like adults, children love to do things that they feel they are good at. That is intrinsic motivation at its best. So how we can foster that is:


1. Don't make tasks too difficult or it will be frustrating and they won't have enough success to want to continue.


2. Give them positive feedback- point out how well they are progressing and that they are good at it! Shinichi Suzuki, the violin pedagogue that had 4 year olds playing concertos is one of my top role models for teaching! One day a mother came to him and said, "My son plays the violin terribly! Can you help him?" Dr. Suzuki said of course and asked the boy to play for him. The child played very poorly and Dr. Suzuki smiled and said, "Wow! You can really play!" The child straightened up, smiled, and tried harder and played much better than he ever had. The mother asked after the lesson, "Why did you lie to him and tell him he played well?" Dr. Suzuki said, "I never said he played well. I said he really played!" Dr. Suzuki knew how to motivate children!

  • Connectedness

What children want more than anything is YOU. They want your full attention, your love and your approval. The most important thing is your relationship. Be fully present. Put your phone away and spend time with them-even if you are just putting toys away. Look them in the eyes. Praise them. Conquer tasks together. Laugh. There is nothing more intrinsically motivating than that.

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