The Power of an Internal Incentive to Behave

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There are a lot of ways to make people behave the way you want them to—and, by extension, to make your children behave the way you want them to.  In a post uploaded in August 2008, I looked into a programme that encouraged good behaviour in students by giving them points they could exchange for cash.

No doubt that many—if not most—of the students were encouraged to behave better than they would have without this incentive (I haven’t looked this up, mind you).  I know that I myself have decided to behave on occasion because of similar external incentives (chocolate ones in particular really were effective!)  But the problem, of course, is what will the students do once the external incentive to behave is gone?

I wonder if teenage rebellion has a little something to do with this.  If parents only offer an external incentive for their children to do what they, as parents, think they should do, then once the incentives don’t hold as much weight, the child doesn’t have a good enough reason to continue.

Therefore, it is only logical that the incentive needs to be internal.  Somehow, these students should want to behave, and want it at such a profound level that nothing can affect it.  Similarly, children will want to do what their parents want them to do.  This requires a lot more work, of course—and it also requires a huge degree of humility from educators.

The Power of One Question

One of the most powerful questions I have witnessed children reacting really well to is: What do you think is going to happen now?  In other words, making the children think about the consequences of their actions—as per their capacity—has resulted in some amazing and very insightful comments.  A four-year-old, when asked “What do you think is going to happen now?” after hitting his friend, asked: “Is he going to go and hit someone else?”  A seven-year-old who studied hard and got a good mark on her exam responded: “I’ll be able to do things better because I’m smarter!”  A ten-year-old who did their chores halfheartedly responded: “Mom can take some time to rest.”

All of these answers set these children on a path of action-reflection and, if the parents handle it well, a path of action-reflection-consultation-study.  In other words, the child has performed an action; the parent, asking them “What do you think is going to happen now?” make them reflect and think about the consequence of their action; based on the answer the child provides, he/she and their parents can talk and consult about how the child can respond to this same situation in the future; and, if needed, the child, helped by the parent, can be told a story or read up on a related topic (anger management, the importance of knowledge, family life) that will hopefully help positively inform the child’s actions next time he or she is in the same situation.

Final Thoughts

It might seem like a lot, but keeping in mind that we, as adults, would greatly benefit from being engaged in a similar process, and that we should teach discipline to our children rather than disciplining them, it just makes a whole lot of sense to invest the time, energy, and effort to have such an ongoing conversation with our children.

{ Sahar’s Blog is all about being in a constant state of learning.  So it only made sense for me to go back to all my previous posts and see how my thoughts on certain topics have changed over the last nine years.  In this new, ongoing series of posts, I’ll be rereading some of my older posts and reflecting on the same topic in light of what I’ve learned since then.  It’s going to be very interesting to see how things have changed! }

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2 thoughts on “The Power of an Internal Incentive to Behave

  1. A brillant post.

    This is such a good thing to consider when our kids are little – installing the internal incentive. Brilliant article, thank you!

    When i freak out about poorly behaved kids around my kids my husband always talks about teaching the children to know internally that something is wrong rather than removing the external influence.

    This is type of internal strength will become especially necessary when our children come up against peer pressure. They will only continue to follow their own path if they can withstand outside pressure.

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