Little children are naturally curious about the world. They don’t need stickers, stars or m&m’s to encourage them to crawl, play peek-a-boo or sing.
But as they start to read, sometimes parents think that natural rewards—a hug from Mom or an “Atta boy” from Dad—are not enough. Parents substitute internal motivators—feeling successful, learning a new skill—with external motivators-“Read ten minutes and then you can play on my iPad.”
Psychologists have terms for reward systems: internal locus of control and external locus of control. The external ones—when we are controlled or rewarded by things outside ourselves—are effective in the short term, but they soon lose their power. When kids balk at a reward of one cartoon, parents up the ante to two cartoons, and then three. External rewards undermine kids’ natural reward system. These kinds of rewards frustrate children’s desire to learn.
Instead we should be focusing on internal rewards: the child being aware that he or she is thinking independently, that he or she is able to do things “all by myself.”
If you want ways to encourage children to develop an internal reward system, check out this recent article in The New York Times. It offers practical ways for parents to encourage children to learn without resorting to stickers, a new Lego set or a donut.