But What About Intrinsic Motivation?

Following up on a previous post on the topic of bribery, we also want to discuss intrinsic motivation, as these two topics are often related!  Generally when parents express to us their fear of using "bribery", what they typically mean is that they do not want their children to do things simply for rewards.  Instead, parents often want their children to engage in desired behavior because it is intrinsically-motivating.

So let's talk about it.

To start, we should mention that "intrinsic motivation" is not a behavioral term.  So, to define it for you, we have referred to the Merriam Webster Dictionary.  From this source, the most relevant definition to our discussion is: "originating or due to causes within a body, organ, or part"

Now, in the world of behavior, we discuss various types of reinforcement.  We agree that some behaviors are maintained by "automatic reinforcement"  These are behaviors that continue or increase simply because the behavior itself provides some type reinforcement.  To avoid boring you with technical behavioral definitions, we'll give you a simpler and non-behavioral way of thinking about this.  Automatically-reinforced behaviors are generally things we do because they are enjoyable to us in some way.  For example, watching television, biting our nails, and twirling our hair, are all potential examples of automatically-reinforced behavior.  Really, anything you do simply because you enjoy it is likely maintained by automatic reinforcement.

So, if automatically-reinforced behaviors are ones we engage in because something about them is satisfying to us, that sounds an awful lot like the definition of intrinsic motivation, right?  These are things we do simply because we want to and for no outside reason.  With that in mind, do we agree that some behaviors are not maintained by any outside reinforcement and instead are maintained by just engaging in the activity?  Sure!  For the sake of minimizing confusion in this post, we will use the term "intrinsic motivation" as though it were interchangeable with "automatic reinforcement"

Now, back to wanting your child to engage in desired behavior!  

Would it be nice if our children engaged in desired behavior simple because they wanted to?  Wouldn't it be wonderful if we were all intrinsically-motivated to engage in appropriate behavior all the time?  Of course!  But, the fact is that if your child is not continuing to engage in an activity, it is not intrinsically motivating!  If it was, he would be doing it!  So, for behavior your child is not demonstrating, you can be pretty confident that the intrinsic motivation is not there.  

So now what?

Well, you have two choices.  You can hold off on providing other reinforcement in the hopes that the desired behavior will appear or increase on its own and become intrinsically-motivating OR you can teach the behavior you want to see and provide external reinforcement to increase it.  We generally support the latter.  Why, you ask?  Because we would rather see your child learn new skills and appropriate behavior, rather than continue to engage in problematic behavior that may lead to safety concerns or lost opportunities.

Here's something else to keep in mind:  Just because you initially provide outside reinforcement, that does not mean that the behavior will never become intrinsically-motivating.

One the one hand, by pairing an activity or behavior your child is not motivated by with things he is motivated by, we may actually make that activity more enjoyable!  Over time, you may be able to thin out the reinforcement you are providing so that your child engages in the desired behavior without it (or at least with a decreased level/frequency of reinforcement).  There are various ways to do this!

Also keep in mind that we often do not enjoy activities that are difficult for us.  Some of the behaviors your child is not engaging in may be hard for him.  By providing teaching opportunities and reinforcement, we may make that activity easier.  Once your child becomes better at engaging in that behavior, it may become more intrinsically-motivating.  But, we may initially need to use external reinforcement to help him get there!

Here's an example:  As a child, my parents enrolled me in piano lessons.  Initially, I did not enjoy playing the piano, cried when it was time to practice, and avoided practicing as much as possible.  My parents put a reinforcement system in place.  They provided me with praise and created a star chart for when I practiced.  Initially, this external reinforcement motivated me to practice, as I could exchange my stars for a special treat.  But, the more I practiced, the better I became and the easier it got.  As it got easier and as I experienced success with the piano, it became intrinsically-motivating.  I began playing the piano because I enjoyed it and without any external reinforcement.  However, without that external reinforcement initially, I probably would have quit and never would have learned to play the piano.

So the point here is that intrinsic motivation is great when it happens naturally.  But realistically, it's not always there.  When it's not there, we may need to use outside reinforcement to increase the behavior we want to see.  Once we have taught and reinforced those behaviors, they may or may not become intrinsically-motivating. That's okay.  All of us engage in some behaviors that are intrinsically-motivating and others that are not.  As adults, we generally engage in activities that are not intrinsically-motivating because we receive outside reinforcement (e.g. a paycheck).  So that's alright for us and it's alright for our children.  What's important is that your child is learning and performing skills that will help him to be happy and successful in life!

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