Natural vs artificial motivators for kids

There is a balance between using natural motivators and artificial motivators to encourage a child to behave appropriately. Earning stickers or having a reward jar is a great way to increase motivation initially, but eventually you want children to learn the inherent reward that acting positively will provide. Children will not learn this on their own, but need to be guided. If they aren’t taught then they will expect a reward for every positive behavior, or worse, will not even do a positive behavior unless they know they will receive a reward for doing so.

Artificial Motivators

An artificial motivator is a reward that is made up and given by a parent to a child to reward a positive behavior. Examples of artificial motivators are earning a sticker for completing a chore or earning video game time for completing homework. There are 3 times when using artificial motivators can be especially helpful:

1. With young children

Because young children are just starting to learn what behaviors are and how it influences consequences, artificial motivators are the best way to show them the value of what you are teaching. Rewards for young children are usually tangible, visual, and immediately given so they quickly learn a behavior produces a certain consequence. Artificial motivators are also especially exciting to young children, and they begin to gain self confidence as they can see and show-off what they have earned for behaving well.

2. When first introducing consequences

No matter the age of your child, if you have not consistently enforced positive or negative consequences in your home then starting with artificial motivators will make the transition easier as you start creating expectations for your children. They will be more willing to participate in the new expectations if they are earning a reward for doing so.

3. After teaching a new skill

Anytime a new behavior or skill is taught reinforce with artificial motivators. The increased motivation a reward provides will encourage your child to apply the skill consistently. Charts and jars also become a reminder to you and your child to implement the skill. It is easy to revert to old behaviors until your child has sufficient time and experience in using the new behaviors. Rewards remind you to prompt and use the new behaviors until they become the natural response. You may also occasionally turn back to artificial motivators if your child regresses in using a behavior they have learned in the past. However, this shouldn’t be long-term or require as much time as when you first introduced the skill.

Outside of the these three areas it is best to allow natural consequences to occur as much as possible so your children don’t always expect to earn a tangible reward. This is especially true as your children grow.

Natural Motivators

Natural motivators are rewards that spontaneously occur in the environment as a result of an action. Examples of natural motivators are a child having more time to play with toys before bed because they finished their chores or receiving a good grade on a test because they completed homework assignments and studied. There are many long-term benefits for a child if they begin to experience natural motivators. First, they will learn to behave for the inherent reward a task will provide. For example, a child may discover a love for playing the piano when they aren’t practicing only to earn candy, and then they will begin to practice on their own without much prompting from you. This intrinsic motivation is what encourages your child to become self motivated. As they are finding the right reason for behaving or completing tasks it spreads to other areas of their life and their overall responsibility increases. They learn to act on their own and are rewarded by their personal sense of accomplishment.

How to transition from artificial to natural motivators

Once you have come to a stage where you want to transition from artificial to natural motivators, there are a few tips that will help you transition smoothly.

Gradually move from charts and jars to intermittent rewards

Once your child has earned several rewards and is starting to use the skill with less prompting, begin spacing out the rewards by making it take longer to earn the reward or requiring multiple uses of the behavior to earn a token. The rewards may also move from tangible rewards such as a sticker to earning alone time with you. Extra time with parents is one of the best motivators for kids. Then you will eventually transition into praising your child instead of providing a reward.

Praise

Praise is a reward all on its own, but again it increases self motivation because praise is satisfaction they feel internally without receiving an artificial reward. However, not all praise is created equal. The skill of Effective Praise is the most effective way to reinforce positive behavior because it is specific and includes a child-centered rationale. The child-centered rationale is explaining to your child how they benefit from doing that behavior. Seeing how a behavior benefits them moves them to behaving based on the natural consequences they will receive.

Explain to your child how behaving well benefits them

You can find other ways to verbalize to your child how positive behaviors will benefit them outside of using the skill of Effective Praise. These explanations can begin even if you are using artificial rewards. For example, I have been working with my 5-year-old daughter on asking calmly for her little brother to give a toy back if he takes it without asking. When she is able to do so I always point out that she gets a better reaction from her brother whenever she asks calmly than if she escalates and starts yelling or demanding that he give it back to her.

As much as possible, let natural consequences happen

There are some situations where allowing natural consequences to occur can be difficult, but it is one of the best learning opportunities for child. If your child forgets to take a project to school, then don’t rescue them by dropping what you are doing and taking it to them. They may earn a lesser grade for doing so, but they probably won’t ever forget a big project again. Or they may even find a creative way to resolve the situation on their own with their teacher. As you work towards using natural motivators for your children they will learn to be responsible, mature, self-motivated adults.

For more intrinsic motivation examples, download the “Possible Positive Rewards” document from Effective Praise lesson.

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