Reward systems and outright bribery may sometimes seem like the easiest, or only, way to motivate your child when all else fails.

While this type of external encouragement may seem ideal for sudden improvements in your child’s behavior, that good behavior is likely only temporary. Even worse, this kind of external motivation can have a negative impact on a child’s internal motivation over the long term.

Use these tips to learn when external, or extrinsic, motivation can become a problem, as well as the most appropriate methods of using it with your children.

What is extrinsic motivation?

When we do something specifically for an external reward, we’re responding to extrinsic motivation. In other words, an outside force is encouraging us. Rewards might be tangible, like toys, stickers, or money. They may also be psychological, like praise or attention.

As parents, we may resort to offering our children some kind of reward as motivation for a specific behavior. For example, a parent may promise a cookie after the child picks up their toys, or ice cream if the child scores during their soccer game, or a movie night if the child gets an A on their spelling test.

Offering these kinds of incentives may be well-intentioned, but extrinsic motivation can have its drawbacks.

Extrinsic motivation vs. intrinsic motivation

Simply put, intrinsic motivation comes from within. When a child gets dressed on their own or draws a new picture, they’re making their own choices. They’ll derive satisfaction from both the act of deciding what to wear or draw, and the opportunity to do so. The same is true for a child who reads a book for pleasure, instead of reading only because it’s been assigned for homework.

The problem arises when we negatively impact a child’s intrinsic interests with rewards. Trying to motivate a child into doing a specific activity by promising some kind of reward for that behavior can decrease their intrinsic motivation. That means that not only can a child’s motivation to repeat that specific task be negatively impacted, but it can affect future behavior as well.

When we offer a cookie if a child picks up their toys, the cookie becomes the only reason they do the task. The cookie can interfere with your child learning that a clean room is its own reward, or that tidying up is what we do when we’re finished playing.

Offering ice cream after a soccer game if your child scores a goal likewise robs them of the pleasure of just playing the game for the fun of it. Instead, they’re focused on trying to score specifically for an ice cream treat.

Rewards charts are a classic example of extrinsic motivation. Using rewards like stickers or tally marks that add up to a prize are a quick way to see an immediate change in your child’s behavior, but these effects are likely temporary. You may also be inadvertently teaching your child that a specific task shouldn’t be done unless there’s a good enough reward.

When we use reward systems for children, we run the risk of teaching them to comply in exchange for a reward. But once the reward is no longer offered, you may lose your child’s compliance as well. That’s when reward charts must sometimes become long-term, or parents have to offer bigger, better rewards to continue getting a certain behavior from their children. And both of those scenarios are problematic.

When is extrinsic motivation effective at home?

Extrinsic motivators aren’t automatically a bad idea. But there are certain situations in which they are most effective.

Extrinsic motivators work best when your child isn’t especially interested in a particular behavior or they lack the basic skills to do it well. Let’s use the example of practicing the piano. When your child’s disinterest or reluctance to practice is related to their inexperience with the chords, a small reward to get them “over the hump” can be very effective. Once your child masters the basics to the point that they can see their own improvement, they may become intrinsically motivated to practice without any external motivation.

Extrinsic motivators should be used in the short term, and slowly phased out as intrinsic motivation takes their place.

The takeaway

Offering children some kind of reward in exchange for good behavior can seem like a smart decision, but remember to do so with caution.

Extrinsic motivation is best used when a child isn’t especially interested in the activity, like potty training, or when they lack the skills that make an activity enjoyable, like learning to read.

If you offer small rewards as incentives to keep going, try to make clear associations between the behavior and the reward. If your child practices reading out loud for another 10 minutes, they can choose a new book from the library or bookstore, for example.

Remember, once the basic skills are mastered or intrinsic interest starts to grow, the rewards should be phased out.