Why Internal Motivation Matters So Much (And How to Nurture It in Our Kids)

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I’m sure most of us know the feeling of speeding past a highway patrol vehicle on the freeway, knowing full well that we were speeding, and then slowing down as inconspicuously as possible, and just hoping that we didn’t just get caught and won’t get a ticket. We keep an eye on our rear view mirror and feel either a rush of relief when the cop doesn’t move, or a sinking feeling of dread when his lights flash on.
 
That is a conditioned fear response, which has been put in place to ensure that people drive the speed limit for the safety of all on the road. 
 
Except… Does it work? It certainly works in the moment when we see a cop! But does it really encourage drivers to put safety first and choose to follow the law because they feel that’s the right thing to do?
 
Fear of punishment (and parent-imposed “consequences,” which are almost always the same thing) is known as what’s called an external (or extrinsic) motivator. And as we see with driving and speeding, external motivators are effective in changing behavior — at least under certain conditions.
 
But because external motivators are external (outside of a person), if those certain conditions aren’t present (e.g. there’s no cop around), then what’s going to motivate that person to choose what’s right?
 
As we also see with this example of speeding, plenty of people still speed, causing far too many accidents and deaths. Clearly, fear of punishment is not as effective as one might hope.
 
On the flip side of the extrinsic motivation coin we have rewards. Rewards may seem more positive than punishment, but they are still an external motivator and thus have the same negative effects.
 
The effect I find most interesting is that the more external motivators are used, the less likely a person is to choose to do ‘the right thing’ (be helpful, kind, do honest work, etc.) simply because it feels correct. As external motivation goes up, internal motivation goes down.
 
Additionally, extrinsic motivators tend to lose their effectiveness with time, resulting in the need to increase the reward or escalate the punishment to get the same results.
 
They also tend to encourage children to be more self-centered by keeping their focus on themselves and what’s going to happen to them (“What’s in it for me?” Or “What will happen to me if I get caught?”), rather than on how their actions affect other people or whether their actions align with their values and what they feel is right.
 
External motivation can breed comparison, competition and resentment between siblings (and school mates), and can even lead kids to define their self-worth by their outward behavior or performance.
 
Lastly, when parents rely on external motivators, we give away our power and influence. External motivators don’t take into account whatever is driving the behavior, and can only change behavior in the moment when those motivators are present, but our loving, guiding influence taps in to our children’s inner being — their needs, their inner guidance system (aka conscience, intuition, the light of Christ), and their internal motivation, influencing much more than just their outward behavior.
 
Internal (or intrinsic) motivation comes from a desire in our hearts to do what’s right, to live in alignment with our values and the truth that we feel. And because it’s internal (within us), it has the potential to motivate us all the time, in every circumstance.
 
There have been a couple talks given in General Conferences recently that have hit on the importance of internal motivation, of desiring and choosing to do what’s right.
 
dale renlund quote
 
In his talk from April 2017 entitled Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, 
 
“Historically, fear has often been used as a means to get people to take action. Parents have used it with their children, employers with employees, and politicians with voters. … It is true that fear can have a powerful influence over our actions and behavior. But that influence tends to be temporary and shallow. Fear rarely has the power to change our hearts, and it will never transform us into people who love what is right and who want to obey Heavenly Father. People who are fearful may say and do the right things, but they do not feel the right things. They often feel helpless and resentful, even angry. Over time these feelings lead to mistrust, defiance, even rebellion. … The more I come to know my Heavenly Father, the more I see how He inspires and leads His children. He is not angry, vengeful, or retaliatory. His very purpose—His work and His glory—is to mentor us, exalt us, and lead us to His fulness. … [God] wants to change more than just our behaviors. He wants to change our very natures. He wants to change our hearts. … He wants this for us because He loves us and because this is the way to happiness. So, how does God motivate His children to follow Him in our day? He sent His Son! God sent His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to show us the right way. God motivates through persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned. God is on our side. He loves us, and when we stumble, He wants us to rise up, try again, and become stronger. He is our mentor. He is our great and cherished hope. He desires to stimulate us with faith. He trusts us to learn from our missteps and make correct choices. This is the better way!”
 
And in October 2018 Elder Dale G. Renlund said, 
 
“Our Heavenly Father’s goal in parenting is not to have His children do what is right; it is to have His children choose to do what is right and ultimately become like Him. If He simply wanted us to be obedient, He would use immediate rewards and punishments to influence our behaviors. But God is not interested in His children just becoming trained and obedient “pets” who will not chew on His slippers in the celestial living room. No, God wants His children to grow up spiritually and join Him in the family business” (Choose You This Day, Oct. 2018).
 
These inspired talks from the Lord’s chosen apostles reaffirmed to my heart what I already knew: our internal desire and the use of our agency for good are vitally important, and the use of external motivators will not lead us there. This goes for our children as well, which means that our parenting should also reflect this goal.
 
If we truly want our kids to grow up spiritually, and desire and choose to do right, then we need to stop treating and training them as we do pets.
 
Despite popular belief, this intrinsic motivation for good can begin (or rather, continue uninterrupted) very early on in life. In fact, it is often the introduction of external motivators (as well as our belief and expectation that these motivators are needed) that disrupt a child’s natural tendencies for things like empathy, helpfulness and cooperation.
 
Though we were sent to a fallen world, Heavenly Father did not set us up for failure. He has placed within and all around us the light of Christ and an ability to feel and know within ourselves right from wrong. He placed within us natural tendencies to care for others, as well as tendencies to look to those with more knowledge and experience (parents, grandparents, leaders, teachers, prophets, and especially Him) to learn from them when they lead and guide with love and confidence in us.
 
We are not born already knowing everything that is okay or safe or socially acceptable (or how to navigate these things), but the instincts and tendencies within us (i.e. our conscience, instincts, empathy, attaching to our elders and looking to them for guidance) are there to help us from the beginning. All children are born with these tendencies! It’s up to us as parents to work with these gifts, rather than against them, if we want to nurture our children’s intrinsic motivation for good.
 
(Young children, of course, also innately have a strong sense of autonomy and a strong urge to explore and learn about their environment, as well as immature brains (which means poor impulse control and self-regulation skills) and lack of experience. These things tend to trip us up, and the toddler years are often when we see parents starting to rely on external motivators to control behavior. More on this below.)
 
It is us (adults) who most often need to have our natures changed (and aligned with the divine nature within us) as Elder Uchtdorf said, by becoming as little children and getting in tune with what is true and right (Mosiah 3:19).
 
We are the ones who need the most practice learning to tune in to ourselves and trust the inspiration and guidance we receive and feel inside, since most of us were taught as children to look outside of ourselves for motivation and behavioral control.
 
We are the ones who need to clear our conditioning and heal our baggage that is getting in our way of effectively tuning in to and trusting our intuition or inner guidance, and of standing firm in the things that are important to us.
 
We have the opportunity to not subject our kids to the same difficulty, but to follow God’s pattern instead of man’s. Our Father in heaven trusts us to follow His Spirit and our divinely gifted mothering instincts and intuition, to choose for ourselves, and to learn from our mistakes when we choose poorly. And He does everything He can to lovingly teach, lead and guide us, without coercing us through external motivators.
 
Now, I’m sure it is possible, of course, to get to a place where we do the right things for the right reasons even if we were raised with behavior modification techniques and external motivators. It’s just that using external motivators actually adds extra work and makes things harder than they need to be, with unnecessary risk involved.
 
So many adults have so much “stuff” that needs to be worked through and healed because of the beliefs that were formed about themselves and the world around them in childhood: 
 
“In order to be good and worthy of my parents’ love and attention, I have to perform well for them all the time.”
 
“I’ll never be as good as my sister.”
 
“My experience/what I want/what’s important to me doesn’t matter.”
 
“I must be a pretty bad person if my parents don’t even want to be around me (or if they want to cause me pain) when I make wrong choices. If they think I’m so bad, I might as well show them how bad I can be.”
 
“I am hopeless — why even try?”
 
So how can we nurture our children’s internal motivation from the get-go?
 
First, we need to have a true understanding and belief about children’s good and pure nature (see Mosiah 3:19 and Moroni 8:8), and of their innate drive to fit in with their family and social structure, to behave appropriately for the situation, and to learn from their elders (since they don’t always know what is appropriate or how to do it). And we need to expect them to do so to the best of their ability, with our clear, loving leadership and support.
 
Children are born pure, whole, and incapable of sinning, but they are very impressionable and can be taught and influenced — for good or ill. They need us (parents and other trusted adults) for their very survival. And the natural order of things is for them to attach to us and then follow us naturally and willingly — unless something gets in the way.
 
Unfortunately, our belief and expectation that they need external motivators and control is often the thing getting in the way, and is ironically teaching them things we don’t want them to learn.
 
It is also critically important that we have high but realistic expectations of our children. It’s important to take into account where they’re at developmentally, as well as their individual temperaments and needs, and then meet them where they’re at and provide whatever support is needed for the desired outcome to happen.
 
So for example, if our young toddler is learning about and experimenting with gravity from his high chair (which is developmentally appropriate), and we’re tired of scraping food off the kitchen floor (which is understandable), we can put down an old sheet or plastic drop cloth under his high chair until the phase passes (or some other creative solution that works well for both of us). If he is throwing food across the room we can unemotionally remove the food from his tray or get him down until later.
 
If we have underlying fear or limiting beliefs about children’s true nature and natural desires to follow the adults they’re attached to, then we have some inner work that needs to be done! If we are not seeing evidence that children want to be good and cooperative, we need to figure out why — and recognize that the reason likely begins with our beliefs, expectations and resulting actions, and a disruption in the attachment or connection between our children and us.
 
(I also want to be clear that if we have limiting beliefs, or our child’s attachment to us is not totally secure, this is not our fault and we don’t need to feel guilty about it. But we do need to heal ourselves and our relationships. As Tara Brach says, “it’s not my fault, and I’m responsible.”)
 
Once we have a correct understanding of their nature, then when they struggle to behave appropriately, we can recognize that there’s something deeper going on for them that’s getting in their way, and help them through that. After setting boundaries for safety and protection or personal boundaries, we can do some detective work to determine the underlying cause of their struggle, as well as their needs, desires and goals. We can listen to them and meet their underlying needs, with the expectation that they truly want to feel and behave well (even if they’re out of touch with that desire at the moment). We can support them in doing so and in reaching their goals in a more acceptable way (a way that is also in alignment with our needs and values). Once they have returned to a state of balance and calm, their cooperation and problem-solving powers usually return as well, and all they may need from us in that moment, if anything, is a little coaching.
 
All humans struggle at times, and young children are functioning with immature brains on top of it all. But with realistic expectations and a correct understanding of children’s true nature, we will be better able to empathize, coach, guide and help them.
 
We need to be really clear (both within ourselves and with them) on the things that matter to us, that are non-negotiable, and respectfully and matter-of-factly give needed information to our kids. We can offer plenty of support to make it easier and more inviting for our children to do what we expect them to do. We can teach them and help them understand our reasons, and we can trust that even when they don’t understand, if our foundation of trust and connection is strong, they will work to keep it that way.
 
That last part there is really important. Our connection with our kids is key to all of this. They need to trust us, to feel safe and open and connected with us, and to truly feel that we’re on their team, in order to experience a desire to please us and imitate us. After all, why is it that we want to follow our Heavenly Father and become like Him? Hopefully it is because we love Him and we trust Him — and we trust Him and “we love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and we have felt that love so surely. 
 
Gordon Neufeld, co-author of Hold On to Your Kids, told of an experience he had in grade school with a teacher who won his heart. He says he was very well-behaved in her class, and it wasn’t just because he was a good kid, but because he wanted to be good for her.
 
“You cannot parent a child whose heart you do not have.” (Gordon Neufeld)
 
stop training kids as pets
 
 
So what if we’re trying to connect with our child and meet their needs and lead and guide with love, and they just simply don’t want to do what we’re asking them to do (assuming it’s not an urgent situation)? It can be hard for me in those situations to not lose my patience, and my inclination is usually to threaten or force (because of my conditioning). Perhaps someone else might resort to bribery and rewards in this instance. But the thing that always works so much better (and that doesn’t leave me regretting my actions later) is to work as a team to find solutions that we are both happy with. If it’s something that truly does matter, I can stand firm on the things that are important to me, while acknowledging what is important to my child (which requires that I first listen to understand them), and we can usually get creative and find a win-win solution.
 
Focusing on win-win solutions has been a blessing in our family in so many ways. It helps each of us to connect with ourselves and what feels important and right to us, while at the same time allowing us to see beyond ourselves to how others are feeling and what is important to them. It is building our conflict resolution and problem solving skills, as well as our empathy and unity. And as we experience the positive feelings that come with cooperation and contribution, our internal motivation is strengthened and fortified. Expecting our kids to work to find mutually agreeable solutions shows our confidence in them to make good choices and to work through difficult things. Finding win-wins is much more likely to inspire willing cooperation in the future than an external motivator would be, as well.
 
Anything that will help our children tune in to their own conscience — in a way that’s free of condemnation or shame — will help them grow their intrinsic motivation muscle.
 
“You must have been so upset to hit your brother earlier. Hitting hurts, and I know you’re not the kind of person who wants to hurt people. It’s okay to feel upset, but you need to use words next time so that no one gets hurt.”
 
“You did it! You must feel so proud of yourself!”
 
“Sarah is crying. That must have hurt her. How can we help?”
 
“Look at the smile on Sam’s face. Sharing your truck with him made him so happy! You look like you feel pretty good inside, too.”
 
Lastly, knowing our children individually will allow us to know what things naturally motivate them, and to work with those traits. One of my children (he’s three) loves racing against the clock to clean up (or get in his pajamas, or get his shoes on, etc.). He also tends to need redirection rather than his momentum feeling totally blocked (unless, of course, what he wants is just not possible or okay with me. Then what he needs is empathy and support to fully feel his frustration and futility and let it pass through him). Another of my children is motivated by lighthearted, fun energy, so if it’s heavy or tense, she checks right out. Some children are very in tune with emotions — their own and other people’s, while others relate logically and intellectually to the world around them. Keeping those things in mind about our unique children will help us know how to connect with them, support them, inspire them, guide them, and encourage them more effectively. 
 
For most of the history of the world, parenting was intuitive and relationship-based, rather than a list of tricks and techniques to use on kids to get them to act a certain way — and I absolutely believe it can be that way again (in fact, it still is that way in some societies). Wouldn’t you love to have deeply connected relationships with your children, to have them naturally and intuitively follow and cooperate with you, while you intuitively lead and guide them as a mentor who is truly on their team? I want that for all of us, too.