When Punishments and Rewards No Longer Work

Listen with Empathy to Motivate Older Kids

Have you ever noticed that as kids age using rewards and punishments that used to motivate them as young children, no longer work at encouraging them to behave?

The reason for this is that as kids get older, their motivation becomes intrinsic.

In an article on verywell.com, Kendra Cherry teaches us that, “extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity to earn a reward or avoid punishment.”

She defines intrinsic motivation as engaging in a behavior because it is personally rewarding. Intrinsic motivation is doing an activity for its own sake, rather than the desire for some external reward.

Dennis Bumgarner, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist explains that to motivate children you probably try to be enthusiastic. He writes, “You may give them a pep talk, or try to rouse them with ‘I-know-you-can-do-it’ or ‘Get-in-there-and-make- it-happen’ sort of cheerleading. You might decide to compliment them, list their skills and positive attributes, or tell them how smart they are,” he says.

But, in his e-book, MOTIVATING YOUR INTELLIGENT BUT UNMOTIVATED TEENAGER, Bumgarner suggests that the reaction to this kind of over-enthusiastic cheerleading, especially for kids who are demoralized or disheartened, is actually demotivating. It produces the opposite result of that which you intend.

Bumgarner points out that if the child doesn’t believe the positive things being said about him, it is not only not motivating, it makes him feel guilty. He feels unworthy of your praiseful words.

Bumgarner says that a “fundamental error made by caregivers using this approach is that they are not listening to the child.”

He continues, “If you are not listening, you can’t conceivably understand. When you don’t understand, your praise comes across not as positive but patronizing.”

But, that doesn’t mean criticism helps either. Bumgarner writes, “If you wish someone to continue doing what they are doing, criticize their every effort and condemn their conduct. This is a sure-fire way to guarantee, especially with an adolescent, that their current behavior will continue.”

The author teaches that the only way to motivate older children is by showing empathy by having an open, non-judgmental conversation about the issues.

He says, “This is soooooo difficult for [nannies and] parents, because you want to teach, to instruct, and to guide. But if the child is not open to your teaching, instruction, or guidance, they will not hear you. What might create this openness is their experience of you both listening to them and accepting what they have to say.”

The psychotherapist illustrates that to connect to kids you must listen without commentary, listen without judgment, listen without advice.

Bumgarner instructs caregivers to simply listen to what the child has to say and then, when we do talk, merely summarize what we have heard.

He recommends, “Don’t add your thoughts— have it be all about their thoughts, perspectives, and points of view.”

Former teacher and author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education: A Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Advocating for Your Child with Special Needs, Amanda Morin agrees that empathy is the way to connect with children.

Morin teaches that empathy isn’t sympathy. It isn’t about feeling sorry about the child, it’s about understanding how they are feeling and letting them know you understand.

Here are Morin’s four components of empathy:

1. Taking his perspective: Putting your own feelings and reactions aside to see the situation through the child’s eyes.

2. Putting aside judgment:
Not jumping to and expressing conclusions about your child’s situation.

3. Understanding the child’s feelings: Tapping into your own experiences to find a way to get what the child is feeling or to remember a time when you felt the same way. (Be careful not to overdo it, however. The child’s experiences are her own).
Communicating that you understand: Letting the child express himself without using “fix it” phrases like “what you need to do is….” Instead, try reflective phrases like, “It sounds like you…” or “I hear that you….”

4. Listen without making any comments: As your nanny kids get older, replace punishments and rewards by listening more to them without interrupting, making judgments, or giving advice.



Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation: What’s the Difference by Kendra Cherry

The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education: A Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Advocating for Your Child with Special Needs

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