On bribery, incentives, and intrinsic motivation.

(Or: why my kids “got nothin’ coming” – except for these special cases)

Montessori philosophy discourages the use of extrinsic motivation – incentives, rewards, sticker charts, grades, and the like. The thinking seems to be that if you’re accustomed to getting something after doing the right thing, you won’t develop any motivation to keep doing the right thing after the rewards dry up.

This thinking makes sense to me. It’s how life works for most of us. We don’t do the laundry because someone will give us a toy if we do; we do laundry because it needs to be done (unless we want to walk around naked.) Of course, the reward of doing laundry is in having done the laundry – we get clean, fresh-smelling clothes and can choose from our full wardrobe. And likewise, the reward for my child packing her own lunch isn’t a prize or a sticker; it’s the fact that she has a lunch to eat.

(Did I ever tell you about the time she refused to pack lunch? She kept goofing off, despite a reminder, a warning, a polite offer of assistance, and some easy ideas. When it was time to leave for school she looked mildly surprised that there was no lunch for her. Oh, well. Off to school we went, and I stepped into the school office and asked them not to “rescue” her at lunchtime. They agreed, and it hasn’t happened again since.)

This can be a hard position to take when everyone else around you is giving out stickers and candy and excessive praise for the most mundane tasks. And when medical (or in our case, dental) professionals advise using a sticker chart to curb a bad habit… well, it’s never easy to buck a trend, but it’s particularly hard when that trend produces short-term results while your own method is focused on the long term.

While I don’t believe in using extrinsic motivation in general, I have occasionally used bribery and incentives to strongly encourage certain behaviours. I’ve used chocolate chips as a bribe for my child to learn to ride a bike (long story, kid is a bit timid and needed encouragement to even lift feet off the ground). I use screen time as a reward for violin practice every day. At first this led to more than a little cognitive dissonance, but I spent some time figuring out why external rewards seemed okay in certain situations, and I’ve come up with a coherent philosophy that I can apply to any questionable situation:

In our home, extrinsic rewards are reserved for behaviours that have no apparent benefit in the moment (and might in fact feel like punishment in the moment) but have an enormous long-term benefit.

Take violin practice. I will never pretend that it’s fun or interesting to spend eight months playing a single note over and over with different rhythms, all the while learning how to place your hands. You’re not playing a song, just repeating one note in rhythm. For eight months. It’s not fun, it’s not interesting, and there’s no apparent benefit – at the end of the day, you can still only play the one note, and nobody really wants to listen to that.

But the payoff for practicing violin daily is huge. After ten years you can play a vast repertoire of music (classical, fiddling, OR jazz); you can join an orchestra or a quartet; you can play by yourself for the sheer pleasure of making music in the moment; you can play with groups for more social interaction; you can play for money; you can teach; you can listen to and appreciate music in a different way than a non-musician can.

You can list these benefits until you turn blue in the face, but they’re just too far-off for most children to volunteer to practice daily. And yet, if we “follow the child” in this instance, the child would miss out on so much. Twenty years into the future they’d be those adults saying, “I wish my parents had made me learn an instrument.”

As an aside, I have met a great many such people; upon hearing that I’m a musician, they utter some variation of “I wish my parents had forced me to learn…” I can’t remember ever meeting someone who said, “I regret having taking lessons. My parents did the wrong thing by forcing me.”

That’s why I believe in bribes – but only for things like learning to play violin, or learning to ride a bike, or drilling math facts, or doing remedial reading work. In these cases I don’t really care if my children develop the desire to do something boring and seemingly pointless. That will come with time and maturity. I do care that they learn the skill in question. Once they have developed the skill to a point where it becomes useful and enjoyable they will want to practice.

In the meantime, I’ll have to force coerce bribe motivate them to practice. I can live with that.