January 8, 2015

Reward effort, not just achievement

Every family has a way of rewarding each other’s achievements. Some families celebrate important milestones with dinner out at a favorite restaurant or a trip to the movies. Parents, in particular, may offer their children a break from chores, a new iPhone, or words of praise for improved grades or behavior.  The reason we use these incentives is because they can really work! Rewarding or celebrating positive actions, on both incremental and long-term bases, contributes strongly to habit formation and the development of intrinsic motivation. However, new psychological inquiries suggest that motivation is more nuanced than we thought: Rewarding effort, not just achievement, has far-reaching effects on willingness to accept challenge, and on three major components of long-term motivation.  

All too often, rewards anreward effortd praise are tied exclusively to tangible accomplishments, such as straight A’s, an MVP title, or the completion of an academic project. But Daniel Pink, a renowned speaker on the subject of motivation, suggests that “contingent motivators,” like extrinsic rewards, are effective only for tasks with a “narrow focus,” where the goal is clear, the rules are obvious, and the desired outcome is easily attained. As parents, we know that our children’s goals are not so cut and dry. Their assignments are increasingly more complicated, their rubrics opaque, and their responsibilities varied and abounding. So- we need an alternative, one that works even when that task is confusing, daunting, or time-consuming. We need effort from our children, even in the face of major obstacles. (For more from Daniel Pink, check out his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” or watch this excellent, fast-moving 10-minute animated summary of the book.)

Carol Dweck, a motivational psychologist, has investigated the effect of praising effort vs. achievement. She discovered that, when we tell our children they are “smart,” and reward their intelligence-confirming behavior based on achievement, we set them up to shy away from tasks that do not come to them so naturally. A child who is “smart,” in most academic settings, may not know how to handle the inevitable assignment or problem that outsmarts them. On the other hand, if we praise effort, we produce students who approach difficult tasks with the knowledge that their hard effort, not their natural gifts, can and will help them succeed. Emphasizing the process of learning opens children up to the joy of learning and overcoming academic challenges and obstacles.

Accordingly, Dan Pink explains three areas in which parents, teachers, and businesses can incite effortful and improved performance in their “workers.” He says to focus on autonomy, “the urge to direct our own lives,” mastery, “the desire to get better and better at something that matters,” and purpose “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.” All three of these ideals are accessible when you praise your child’s effort over her achievements. Here’s how:

  • First, rewarding effort shows your student that you are proud of her for working toward her goals in an autonomous way. When you say, “Wow! You’ve really worked hard on that project,” even when it is not finished or perfect, your child is more likely to want to tackle similar projects, independently and without reward, in the future.
  • Second, rewarding effort encourages your child to keep working hard until she masters a new concept, rather than stop when her assignment itself is finished. When you reward hard work, more hard work will follow, but when you only reward an achievement, the hard work often stops when the task is done, or when the task is too hard.
  • Finally, rewarding effort invites your child to adopt a sense of purpose, and to see their work as something other than a means to an end. Rewarding your child’s effort promotes the feeling that she is contributing to something larger, that her hard work is worthwhile.

When we adjust our focus and reward effort, we promote our children’s desires to do things because they matter, because they like it, because they find it interesting, and because they are part of something important. Rewarding effort simultaneously rewards autonomy, mastery, and purpose, three major elements of success and motivation. It also keeps your children from shutting down in the face of tough challenges, and keeps them pushing themselves to try, try again! So, celebrate with a special dinner when your child has “gone the extra mile” and put extra effort into her latest project. You’ll see a change in her motivation, and success will surely follow.