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How to undermine your child’s motivation to act kindly?

Give him rewards!

Have you seen this in the news?



A University student named Godfrey Coutto was on the bus when a man with special needs shook his hand and didn’t let go. They didn’t know each other, but Godfrey Coutto recognized the needs of the man and helped him, comforting him by putting his arm around him during his bus ride. That was a purely genuine gesture from the young man. Someone else in the bus was so impressed that she took the picture and posted it on facebook.

The picture has been liked and shared around the network, enough to get the attention of the drivers’ union (ATU) of Hamilton and of Canada. They thought it was so nice to see some positive gesture that they will reward him by giving him money… and that’s exactly what they shouldn’t do.

Let me explain: The man did hold the hand of a man with special needs for a reason: he knew it was the right thing to do. It was an intrinsic motivation. A lot of different research shows that if you reward a spontaneous act of kindness that is intrinsically driven, the person who gets the reward will be less inclined to repeat that kind of act if he realizes that there are no more rewards attached.

Extrinsic rewards, like money, diminish the initial inclination to help. Does it mean that that man will never help another person if he doesn’t get money, of course not! He DID the right thing and the attention he got was probably already rewarding for him.


So what does it mean if you are a parent?

Rewards are useful in the short term for changing or getting a specific behaviour. For example, if you want your child to do a chore in the house that isn’t necessarily fun and that your kid doesn’t do (yet), taking the garbage out for example, a small reward would help your child’s motivation. But, as mentioned in “raising helpful kids: the perils of rewarding good behaviour”, reward can undermine your child’s motivation if he is already motivated, if the reward is promised ahead of time or if your child expects to get the reward even for a work that is not necessarily well done. Again stating in the article, praise seems to be a good alternative to reward, but make sure that your praise is well done (see my post on the subject).

Published inkindnesspraise

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