Merit badges and motivation

My column on “Why parenthood needs some merit badges” ran in USA Today yesterday. Some of the feedback I got was that rewards of any kind cheapen what you’re doing, make you less effective, etc. People quote Alfie Kohn to me as if I haven’t read him. Personally, I think that small external rewards can provide that final push to get you to do things you’re actually intrinsically motivated for. I, for instance, am trying to crank out a draft of a novel. Most likely, this novel will not make me rich and famous. I’m writing it just because I want to write it. But it always falls to the bottom of the to-do list, behind paying assignments. What would push it to the top? Even the smallest book advance, accompanied by an externally set deadline. In the absence of that, a merit badge from a writing organization for taking on speculative projects would work too. Maybe this shows I lack self-discipline. Or it could mean that I’m human — and humans respond to some combination of external and intrinsic motivation. What motivates you?

9 thoughts on “Merit badges and motivation

  1. So what do you think about Alfie Kohn? I find him compelling but impractical. As soon as I post this comment, I am going to finish the last third of my current chunk of grading and take myself out to lunch. Will this have an adverse effect on my long-term grading motivation? No idea, but I’m doing it anyway.

    1. @Jamie- compelling but impractical is probably what I’d say too. I really do think that small external rewards can help motivate us to do things we want to do but don’t when our weaker selves get the best of us.

  2. There’s very little we do in life that isn’t motivated by some kind of payback. Rewards are cheap when they are based on values that are cheap. I have done the hard work of raising 3 children because I was motivated to see them become adults of good character, resourceful, responsible, capable of doing well, and doing good. It is my greatest reward that I am seeing these results. Along the way, there is little to measure whether you are going to reach that goal. I welcomed any words of encouragement, any glimpses of progress. These “rewards” did not cheapen my effort; they kept me going. They were not the only end of my efforts, but they sweetened the journey.
    I don’t see why this can’t be true of rewards in many other situations.

  3. I’m all for rewards–why must we be so hard on ourselves all the time? I like to use them especially when I have a string of things I need to do to be a responsible individual, but that I do not particularly enjoy doing. If I know I have an hour of reading time or a meet up with a friend waiting for me at the end of the activity, I’m much more cheerful about getting it done. If that “cheapens” my actions, so be it!

  4. Not a big fan of Alfie Kohn. He takes the Dweck Mindset research and then totally blows it out of proportion.

    I do not find him compelling. Research that shows, “external rewards do not work in X, Y, and Z situations” is not the same as “if you praise your kid at all you are destroying him or her.” Especially because there *is* research that external rewards work in certain situations, especially when they reward effort for kids who haven’t yet reached a certain facility level with the material. And Dweck’s original research shows that praising effort rather than innate ability helps.

    Apparently Kohn was doing other controversial stuff in the 1970s… I mentioned him to my mom and her comment was, “Is that crackpot still around? He almost destroyed an entire generation of inner-city kids.” I’m not sure what he was up to back then. I should ask her sometime.

  5. There are certain tasks that require more structure than I expect. Sometimes setting up an external reward will be just the thing that makes the structure work. Usually, I can phase out the reward after awhile and just keep the structure.

    1. @Joy – I think you’re on to something here — external reward as transitional help to get to the point where internal motivation kicks in. Like with running. Eventually, you feel great! But probably not in the first week.

      1. Internal vs. external motivation depends on the task and the person. Even after running 5x/week for months, I still hated it. So, I usually exercise in other ways because never being able to breathe never became fun.

        1. @Twin Mom- people do say that sticking with exercise is all about finding something you like. It really doesn’t matter what it is as long as you’re willing to do it multiple times a week. So if running isn’t it, no worries. The problem is that a lot of stuff people might want to do (like go to Zumba class) is hard to pull off logistically multiple times per week.

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