So, if Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is correct in his conclusions, extrinsic motivators should be taboo whenever the work we assign requires creativity or when it is something that touches personhood (virtue, learning). So what tactics are left to us? If we aren’t to use sticker charts or play money or marbles or other superficial reward structures, are there any tactics we can use?

Intrinsic Motivators in the Home & Homeschool

For we do still find ourselves with resistent, stubborn, misbehaving children and selves, who do need incentives and motivation. So, are we just to wallow in our fallenness and bemoan that we have lost our internal motivation, so without hope left in the world?

Of course not.

Intrinsic motivators take more time and effort and maturity to develop, but they are also more lasting and more applicable throughout life. In modern terms, intrinsic motivation is a life skill, whereas extrinsic motivation ceases when the reward system fails or ends. In sappy homeschooly terms, intrinsic motivation is character training. It’s called integrity.

In classical terms, they used to say, “Virtue is its own reward.” Our training needs to focus on steering the child (and ourselves) toward not only acknowledging the truth of that statement, but feeling it. And it’s not done by superimposing prizes – that is, in fact, teaching the opposite, that virtue needs additional reward to be worth the effort.

Intrinsic motivators:

  • Treat children with the dignity that maturing humans should be given; give them responsibility, tell them “well done” when they have done well (not effusively or with flattery) and make them redo their work or otherwise suffer the natural consequences of not doing well. Be willing to take a hard, unpopular line.

Children are not pets or trick ponies, to be given a treat when they perform. They are people, humans, souls, and should be treated as such – that they like a treat when they perform is no argument for doing so.

  • Reward demonstrated responsibility with more responsibility. That includes but is not simply more work, but more trust as well. Give them as much autonomy and independence in completing their work as they are able to faithfully fulfill. Remove degrees of autonomy and independence when trust is broken and increase it when it is earned. Remember that the goal is developing maturity in individuals, not managing a mob.
  • Praise mastery of skills as it comes. As they progress in math or piano or reading or any pursuit, point out growth and ability they have gained. When they don’t want to try anymore, remind them that just like legs hurt when they grow, their mind tries pushing back when it grows, too. No pain, no gain. The reward, the skill, is on the other side of effort and hardship. This is how God made the world to work and fighting it is not only pointless, but counterproductive.
  • Ensure they understand why they are doing what is required of them. Although toddlers need to obey without question or understanding, take the time to talk to elementary students about the purpose behind requirements, school, and work (assuming you know the purpose, which you should; if you don’t, that might be why you’re having a hard time).
What is intrinsic motivation? How do we teach it to our children...and ourselves? What is the value in intrinsic motivation?

Now, having a conversation with them about purpose is quite different from them arguing and questioning. Theirs is still not to reason why, theirs but to do and die, so to speak. But as we develop these little enlisted soldiers into officers and prospective generals, we need to allow them to see behind the curtain at times and know there is purpose behind and progress ahead.

Training in intrinsic motivation is really what the classical phrase ordo amoris [ordering of the affections] is about, as C.S. Lewis explains in Abolition of Man:

St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.

And what about intrinsic motivation for ourselves? What does that look like?

It is learning to love [in its proper place] a clean and orderly house. If we have right affections for our house and its state, then housework is no longer a menial chore that, when we do it, we feel entitled to kudos and bonus points – and resentful when we aren’t given kudos and bonus points.

It is doing the right thing (whether it be disciplining a child, cooking dinner, or cleaning house) because it is the right thing and therefore honoring to God. It is doing the right thing with the attitude Christ commends in Luke:

So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’

It is knowing that our seemingly insignificant or mundane or never-ending work is part of our sanctification and therefore never insignificant.

Biblical principles directly apply: We have to be faithful in the little things before larger responsibilities are given us; we are to work out our own salvation (and not others’) with fear and trembling; and no temptation has overtaken us that God has not also provided a way for us to resist and escape, if we want it. The day to day application of these principles can look inconsequential and it can manifest itself as completely different actions in different circumstances (folding the laundry or not, for example), but it is the principles and wisdom being learned and applied that matter, not a particular outward expression.

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


  1. Thanks!

    Yes, this is completely in line w/ CM’s philosophy and I thought about incorporating her stuff, but the post was already long enough and I was lazy and didn’t feel like going and looking it up. :)

    Your group sounds like it’d be a lot of fun. :)

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