How Not to Motivate: Extrinsic Rewards

As I reviewed on Friday, In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink argues that motivation and satisfaction center on having these three operators in our lives:

  • Autonomy: the ability to have at least some self-direction.
  • Mastery: the ability to improve ourselves in a field or skill.
  • Purpose: the ability to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.

It turns out that even science is now demonstrating that people are not purely economically motivated, yet as Pink puts it, “there’s a gap between what science knows and what business [or school or family] does.”

The psychological and sociological discussion of the book is interesting, but what struck me was how applicable it was to childrearing and homeschooling. How do we treat our children? What incentives do we expect ourselves and our children to respond to?

This next week, I want to look at each of the three factors Pink develops and apply them to homeschooling and housework, to our children and ourselves.

Types of Motivation

In Drive, Pink contrasts two forms of motivation.

  • Extrinsic Motivation: Doing something because of imposed rewards (that is, not natural consequences) you will receive for doing so.


  • Intrinsic Motivation: Doing something because of the satisfaction, delight, or natural consequences of doing so.


How do we motivate ourselves and our kids? If our goal is to train our children for life as mature adults and for eternity, then our methods and not just the short-term results matter.

According to Pink, these two types of motivation are taught, not part of personality or disposition. What you expect for your work is based largely on what you have been trained to expect by your upbringing, education, and employment. And extrinsic rewards have been the standard for about 100 years now. However, intrinsic motivation is natural; it is the motivation children begin life with. They do not learn to walk or talk to earn a prize, but because it is intrinsically rewarding to develop (in this case, to grow in mastery & autonomy).However, a system of extrinsic rewards usually stifles and deadens intrinsic motivation, as children learn to expect something other than satisfaction or growth and development for their efforts. In the end, as they extinguish the internal satisfaction of a job well done, external reward systems also diminish performance; crush creativity; and encourage short-term, even unethical, behavior. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is consistent with integrity and maturity. Extrinsic motivation creates dependency and selfish ambition.

Extrinsic Motivators in the Home & Homeschool

So, what are some concrete examples of extrinsic motivation in homeschooling? Oh, how they abound! If you follow any homeschooling boards on Pinterest, you’ve probably seen a lot of creative ideas for extrinsic reward systems.

These are just a few, and they all are based on the same principle: In order to learn to behave, children need positive reinforcement. But not just any positive reinforcement. They need prizes. They need something that appeals to their appetites. Appetites, however, grow when fed.

Such reward systems teach children to be little mercenaries, looking out to see if they’ll get their credit. And, as Jesus said, such have already received their reward. These systems, harmless though they might seem, train children to do good in order to be seen by men. They learn to do good in order to get something for themselves rather than because it is right.

These systems are totally modern, coming in with industrialization, when popular secularized psychology began teaching that people are best treated as cogs in the machine rather than as eternal souls. I know that is a harsh and extreme statement, but rewarding virtue with cash, marbles, sticks, tickets, or other superficial prize is treating a child as if he were a hamster rather than a soul made in the divine image.

Moreover, we even treat ourselves this way. How many articles or books have you read that suggest that to motivate yourself to clean house or lose weight, you pick a reward to give yourself when you accomplish your goal. It is the same principle, only you are in the difficult position of being both authority and slave at the same time, which is why it rarely works.

If our goal is to train our children for life as mature adults and for eternity, then our methods and not just the short-term results matter. Let us not choose methods that fulfill only the goal of crowd management and outward conformity, but be willing to put in the time, effort, and thought required to do the right thing for the right reason.

Discovering What Motivates

  1. Review: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
  2. How Not to Motivate: Extrinsic Rewards
  3. Motivating without Stickers: Intrinsic Motivation
  4. Finding Motivation: Autonomy in [Home] School and [House] Work
  5. Finding Motivation: Mastery in [Home] School and [House] Work
  6. Finding Motivation: Purpose in [Home] School and [House] Work

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One Comment

  1. Hi Mystie,
    How do you think your negative view of extrinsic motivation relates to the ideas discussed in this article by Andrew P (of IEW).
    While he agrees that there are higher forms of motivation (or relevancy) which are those you discuss, he does bring up a good point: “Let’s face it: some things are just not going to be intrinsically interesting, nor will it be possible to make them interesting to everyone. While there are exceptions, most children find things like memorizing multiplication facts, drilling spelling words, or doing grammar workbooks to be rather meaningless in their lives. The relevancy is just not there…”
    I think he raises some helpful strategies on how to introduce contrived relevancy in those situations. I don’t think we are destroying the other kinds of relevancy by strategically using contrived relevancy or economic systems/games in some parts of our homeschooling. He also discusses in other areas (I think on the podcast discussing Motivation?) the differences in genders regarding types of relevancy and how boys have a greater degree of need for compensation for their work – and that is linked to a God given drive to be a provider. He makes the point that as adults, that no matter how much someone loves their job, if they weren’t getting paid, they wouldn’t be doing it.

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