Finding Your Kids’ Currency – What Motivates Them?


I’m not a psychologist (although I am certified to teach psychology), but I love to study human nature. Eleven years spent teaching teenagers and talking with their parents will give you a great chance to do that. One of the many things that I noticed over those years is that everybody is motivated by something.

Psychologists put motivation into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is when your motivation comes from inside of you.

This could be your personality, such as you always want to do your best. Or you want to make the world a better place.  Maybe you want to pay something forward that someone gave to you. Intrinsic motivation could even be selfish, such as you feel that you are more important than other people.

Extrinsic motivation is when your reason for doing something comes from outside of you.

This could be something like a reward or trophy. It could be a goal to beat someone else or receive praise. Or maybe you want a raise at work or a new friend.

When trying to influence your kids to do something or not do something, try to keep in mind whether they are naturally more intrinsically or extrinsically motivated.  

Another thing to consider is that when trying to change behavior, people can either be rewarded or punished (the carrot or the stick approaches, so to speak)  

If my 3-year-old is refusing to sit on the toilet when I know that she has to pee, I can either threaten her with a punishment (no iPad after lunch) or I can offer a reward (m&m just for sitting on the toilet for 2 minutes).

Or I could give both consequences, but I would advise against doing that right away because it can be confusing for younger kids.

After parenting for six years, I’ve found that parenting is basically just trying different things to see what works.

This is true whether a newborn is crying, a toddler won’t use their words, a 5th grader won’t do their homework, or a teenager won’t stop talking to their neighbor in class. This is even true in my own life so it could help you moms out too (bonus!).  

When a behavior is happening that I think should stop, I try a punishment or reward to see what happens. I want to pick a reward that this particular child likes while taking into consideration where their primary motivation comes from.

Same with a punishment. If it isn’t working after a couple days, I switch the reward or punishment and see how that goes. Or I switch from a reward to a punishment.

But don’t forget: it’s tough not to take this all personally.

Remember, it’s not about you.

All humans go through things. All humans need to learn. And all humans make mistakes. Try to think of it all as a human experiment. Pretend you are observing and taking notes.  

“Hmmm, this whining 4-year-old seems to care not a whit about my offer of chocolate. Let me see… does he love watching a show and will miss that? Does she love being around people and won’t like a timeout? Is he interested in helping others, so being a leader of something would appeal to him? Can we make this into a game by timing it because she loves to win or challenge herself?”

Once you are acting as an observer, it is easier to distance yourself from the behavior and try to work out a solution. And if you are at least trying different things, you feel like you are making progress, and you are!  I promise, everyone is motived by something.

Don’t give up, Momma, you’ll figure it out eventually. The key is to study your child and try to understand them.

And maybe you’ve learned a few things about yourself, too. Maybe you work better with a reward system (I’m raising my hand over here), or maybe you would benefit from working in a group. Whatever your or their motivation, I wish you the best of luck!