Have you ever heard of the old “carrot and stick” technique? It uses a visual metaphor of a person, using a carrot tied to a stick to lead a donkey wherever they want it to go. It’s a quaint image: holding out a potential reward, and using it to lead a person to accomplish whatever you wish.
We can see it used quite often in various situations – however, it has nowhere near the positive outcome that we believe it to have.
It’s a demonstration of extrinsic motivation – motivation wherein an outside reward or result is the focus. In my own experience, I’ve seen students be motivated by their parents buying them a video game, a holiday, a toy, or various other rewards. And while it is definitely something that can inspire a new desire to achieve within students, the danger lies in when success doesn’t happen.
What do you do when your child doesn’t get that grade they need to get that reward? Do you still grant it to them? That means that they realise no matter what, the reward will be received –you’re no longer able to use it as currency. You’d have the carrot and stick, but suddenly, they realise they no longer need to chase it down.
However, if you don’t give them the promised reward, and they experience the disappointment of failing with absolutely no positive element, students will become discouraged and distant. They’ll begin to despise school – if they haven’t already – and feel as if the world is unfairly stacked against them.
You see, there’s one big problem with extrinsic motivation:
External motivation = external control.
External control means that the students are affected by elements that are only slightly within their power. At the end of the day, they become demotivated easily, because if they fail, they fail hard, and external factors are affected by it.
So, what’s the solution? Is there any way to motivate students successfully without using a reward?
Absolutely! It’s called intrinsic motivation.
Where extrinsic motivation is focused on an external reward, intrinsic motivation focuses on the inner motivation and reward for a person. It comes most often in the emotions and experiences that follow along with success – that inner “I did this, I can accomplish things!” feeling. People who experience that feeling chase it continually – not for those around them, but for themselves.
This is where you need your child to get to.
To do so, you as a parent cannot dangle the carrot on a stick in front of your child. Rather, place the carrot in their hands and ask, “What do you think it’s going to take for you to get _____?”
That blank space can be an improved grade, a specific reward, or a boost in their confidence. It can be whatever they need, or you believe they should focus on. The point is, placing power back into your child’s hand plants a seed of intrinsic motivation.
They are in charge of developing the goal – you, as their parent, assist them in developing the process. You are also in charge of keeping them to their goal and process, and guiding them towards a better goal/process if you feel they aren’t stretching themselves enough.
Make sure the process and goal are both focused on the effort your child will put in. The amount of effort they expend is achievable, even if their desired grade is not. I guarantee, if they put in their specific effort, and continue to do so over a stretch of time, your child will achieve better and more confidently with time.
If your child has set a specific process for each day – for example, doing an hour of homework each day – then keep them to it. Strictly. If they come to you with finished homework after 20 minutes, then test them. Pull the time spent on homework through to an hour. Remind them that it’s not about what they achieve (finishing the homework), but it’s about how they achieve it (the effort put in for their education).
Regardless of what they do, work with your child to improve their learning. Show genuine interest in what they’re doing, and ask them questions. Remember what I said before, about being a team? Never forget that. As a parent of a child, your responsibility is to show interest in your child’s life – and being a student is a huge part of it. If you show you care about school in a way that’s not just yelling at students to achieve more, but comes from genuine interest, there’s an almost certainty that your child will begin to care too.
Doing all of this continually over the course of their education will allow them to develop an independent style of learning; it’s called autonomous learning. This is not just useful for a student – it’s absolutely paramount. When your child grows up and moves into their chosen field of work, or goes to university, there will be no one to hold their hand or motivate them to achieve. They will become responsible for themselves – just as you are responsible for yourself. Passing along a constructive method of motivation within them will allow them to keep it for the rest of their lives – and who knows, they’ll probably pass it along to their children too!
Check in soon to read our next strategy about how to best ally with your child!
by Shirja Strachan