“Turn off the TV now, otherwise no dessert after dinner tonight”, or, “If you do well in your test today, you can choose a new toy at the toy shop”. Sound familiar? Rest assured, you’re not alone! Many of us were raised in a school or home environment where rewards and punishment were used. This […]

“Turn off the TV now, otherwise no dessert after dinner tonight”, or, “If you do well in your test today, you can choose a new toy at the toy shop”. Sound familiar? Rest assured, you’re not alone! Many of us were raised in a school or home environment where rewards and punishment were used. This is the same mainstream system that most parents use when disciplining their children, or simply getting them to do something that they don’t want to do at that very moment. No one is really taught how to parent, we simply do what our parents did (or the direct opposite). 

Manipulating children’s behaviour is so deeply ingrained in our way of thinking, that we tend to have a “power over the child” mentality as opposed to a “power with the child” one. Instead, we need to re-think some common practices in order to build intrinsic motivation.  

Why do bribes, rewards and punishment not work?  

Bribes, rewards and punishment are all extrinsic motivations, which means that we are getting our child to look to others to do something instead of developing internal self-discipline. 

In her book “The Secret of Childhood”, Maria Montessori observed that neither reward nor punishment were good motivators for the children. Instead, she found that purposeful, meaningful activity provided intrinsic motivation for them. 

The first flaw that Montessori noted in extrinsic motivations was that the evaluation of learning comes from the teacher, and the child is simply told what is right or wrong. Secondly, the focus is always only on the external change in behaviour, with no consideration for the emotions involved in the process, and learning that leads to the behaviour change. 

How is Montessori different? 

The Montessori approach doesn’t use rewards, bribes or punishment, but rather works on building intrinsic motivation instead. The reason is simply because it is important for children to work from their own inner inspiration or self-motivation. 

We believe that if children work in order to get a gold star (or another prize), it is impossible to see where the child’s true interests lie. Also, the absence of punishments allows a natural love of learning and maintains their creativity.

A directress (or guide) in a Montessori classroom provides plenty of opportunities to encourage independence, which are based on the sensitive periods. When these sensitive periods are satisfied, they offer the child stronger reinforcement than any rewards could do. 

No one who has ever done anything really great or successful has ever done it simply because he was attracted by what we call a ‘reward’ or by the fear of what we call a ‘punishment’.
– Maria Montessori

How to build intrinsic motivation in your child 

Now to dive into the really helpful part: how to entice your child into doing something because they want to, and not because of a reward or threat. 

  • Value curiosity – learning is all about finding out, rather than memorising facts. 
  • Avoid sticker charts to help them look to themselves and not to someone else.
  • Give them the freedom to make choices about their day and what they want to work on. 
  • Create opportunities for them to build independence. 
  • Give freedom within limits.
  • Value process over product – there is more learning in the doing than in the final result. 
  • Allow them to discover their mistakes and try again.
  • Use encouragement rather than praise. E.g. Instead of saying “Good job!” all the time, offer words about the effort it took, such as “you worked really hard to tie your laces all by yourself”. 
  • Plant seeds of curiosity – this will help get them interested and discover the rest for themselves.
  • Find ways to solve problems together. 
  • Set kind and clear limits. 
  • Model intrinsic motivation yourself – our actions are more powerful than our words. 

At the end of the day, discipline is about teaching, not punishing. In fact, the word is actually based on the root word “disciple” which means “to teach” or “to learn.” Rather than shaming or excluding a child, we can see it as an opportunity for us to teach and the child to learn about caring for others.