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internal motivation or “I do it!” : better than any sticker chart, reward or threat to eat

Posted by on Aug 7, 2012 in Blog Posts | 1 comment

“Continued, unnecessary intervention makes your child feel bad about himself (if he’s young) or angry at you (if he’s a teenager)”

Continuing with this week’s NYT article posts, “Raising Successful Children” is a fun and informative piece about parenting in general, but if you substitute the word “feeding” for parenting and a few other terms, you could have called it, “Raising Successful Eaters.”

The article gets to the question of internal vs. external motivation and what drives kids to push themselves, whether it’s completing a puzzle task in the laboratory, or trying a new food.

External motivation is rewards, prodding, nagging, praising, and it turns many, many children off. It’s pushing from the outside.

Internal motivation is in play when your child learns to walk, or concentrates to complete a complex task, like building a Lego model and reacts angrily when you try to help her (been there…) It’s when she puts that Kohlrabi on her plate for the first time after she’s seen it several other times, and licks her fingers.

This gets to the heart of why I recommend not pushing or even praising children for eating— whether it’s amounts of types of foods.  As in: “What a big boy (good girl)! You   a) ate all your broccoli or b) finished your chicken…” (Insert your preferred eating behavior here.)

The article explains:

“the children who are not told they’re smart are more motivated to tackle increasingly difficult puzzles. They also exhibit higher levels of confidence and show greater overall progress in puzzle-solving.”

“This may seem counterintuitive, but praising children’s talents and abilities seems to rattle their confidence. Tackling more difficult puzzles carries the risk of losing one’s status as “smart” and deprives kids of the thrill of choosing to work simply for its own sake, regardless of outcomes.”

“If pushing, direction, motivation and reward always come from the outside, the child never has the opportunity to craft an inside.”

Assume your child wants to be competent and grown up with her eating. Assume that is the inevitable outcome (even if it takes longer than you want) and act accordingly.

When I gave a workshop recently, a parent was puzzled and asked, “So what do I say when he does try the broccoli?”

Ideally, nothing, but so many children who are selective eaters are so used to praise that at first when you don’t, they might even ask for it: “Mom, look! I ate the broccoli!”

If you have to, perhaps say, “Oh, I see that, did you like the sauce?” or “Yes, it’s my favorite, what did you think about it?” or “I’m glad you liked it, how was soccer today?”

Because, of course he will try the broccoli someday. He might like it, he might not, but the message you want him to hear from you is, “Hey, no big deal, you can do this, of course you will be comfortable around new foods, try some, skip others, but you will grow up and be capable with your eating. I trust you.” (To the best of his abilities.)

Whey you bribe, praise, threaten, beg, and reward, the message he hears is, “This is a hard, and I have to encourage you to succeed, and it is really important that you do it now. I don’t really think you can do it, so I will help you.”

Do you see the difference? What do you think?

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One Comment

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  1. erylin

    i used to think my mom was lazy, refusing to help us, making us figure stuff out. now i realize she was EQUIPPING us. and how freaking hard it is to sit on your hands and let THEM do it at their pace.


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