We recently received several inches of snow. My crew enjoyed this unexpected surprise as it hardly snowed last year, and we were deeply disappointed. Once the outdoors was adorned with a glimmering blanket of white powder, my sons were eager to get out and play. While they enjoy frolicking in the snow, I gave them an important job to do first: shovel the deck and walkway around the house.
Normally the boys enjoy this opportunity. They are now old enough to be given a task like this and, as long as they have some supervision, they can easily do the work. The problem we frequently run into, however, is not one of ability. Oh no. The problem we encounter is one of motivation. They simply do not feel like doing something so they don’t want to do it. Children between the ages of 4 and 12 years-old must learn how to do things they do not feel like doing. [1] This is no easy task, as the reality is that many adults haven’t even climbed this mountain. 
Back to my story. I explained to my sons the chore this week was to shovel snow instead of the normal indoor duties. Matthew, my seven-year-old, quickly made it clear he did not want to shovel snow. I reminded him that the failure to do his chores will result in the loss of his allowance for the week. This was the expected consequence he needed to understand. In response, my son stated that he was fine losing his allowance and would rather focus his energy on building a fort in the snow. It was clear he did not want to work, he wanted to play.
To be honest, I was surprised to hear the loss of a weekly allowance was not enough motivation. I took a moment to contemplate the things Matthew really enjoys, then I said to both boys, “Whoever shovels the deck can earn a big cup of hot chocolate, and whoever does a good job will receive a marshmallow for good measure.” Needless to say, this offer resulted in two boys quickly rushing to get dressed and out the door to start working.  
While I stood in the window and watched the workers, I was struck by how meticulously they were removing the snow. The quality of snow removal would have put a high-end snow-blower to shame! At this point I realized that what motivated Matthew was not the fear of a consequence, i.e. losing his allowance. Rather it was the promise of a reward, in this case, hot chocolate, that increased his desire to do something he did not feel like doing.
I recently re-read RARE Leadership [2] and what jumped out at me was the question regarding what motivation system we use as a family. As I reflected on this question, I realized we were not running on a motivation system of joy and in fact, we were probably running on fear in many ways. This surprised me, as my husband and I are not yellers or screamers. I do not view myself as a person who uses anger to get results. Yet, I do rely on the fear of consequences as a motivator more than the joy of obedience much more than I like. This reality hit me like a ton of bricks.
I am now contemplating ways I can change the motivation system in our household from fear to joy. The promise of a reward uses a different brain system than the threat of a consequence. Don’t get me wrong, I still plan to use consequences in my parenting style, but instead of relying on consequences to create motivation, I will use new methods of desire-driven activities to spark creativity and generate motivation.
There is little doubt I will need Jesus’ help in this process, particularly creative ideas to focus on the joyful reward that comes with obedience and listening. Sometimes the reward might be a privilege, or possibly a treat the boys can earn. At other times, my joyful response will be enough. As we walk into this new year, one of my resolutions is to find ways to bring joyful motivation into our home. I will let you know how this goes, both my successes and my failures.
Have you considered what fuel you use for yourself, and for your relationships? What areas of your life do you use fear to motivate and get results?

[1] Learn more from the work of Dr. Jim Wilder and the Life Model.
[2] RARE Leadership by Dr. Warner and Dr. Wilder.
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Posted in Parenting

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  1. Hee-Choon Sam Lee

    Thanks, Jen. This reminds me of the three core principles Dr. Wilder found in the Bible in his youth – talk to God about everything, do nothing out of fear, and love others deeply. It is truly frightening to realize how fear is so pervasive in our lives. I will talk with God about this today 🙂

  2. Pam

    Jen I appreciate your weekly authenticity and life model to us.
    Also congratulations on your new direction … and I love the website!!

  3. Chris

    Thank you Jen. Your story comes perfectly timed. I’m motivated to practice this when I’m with my grand daughters next week. I really like your colorful, informative, easy to use website, too. Well Done!

  4. Joe Johnson

    Reminds me of Jesus who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, motivated by the joy of obedience (and other stuff also–provide a way for everyone to be in relationship with God (experience joy)

  5. Erna Topliffe

    Interesting that having 2 friends, whose company I really enjoy, say they were available to share supper tonight, has motivated me to do some cleaning!
    I had been finding that my usual motivation of: “Will you be glad tomorrow that you did this today?” wasn’t working.
    Thanks for your continued encouragement through your vulnerable sharing and creative ideas!

  6. Marsha Kumar

    Great message to the parents and grandparents. I think even at my age of 71 I am motivated more by Joy then consequences.

  7. Scott Rettedal

    I work with small children as a music therapist and this is immensely relevant! Using desire as a motivator seems much better than having power struggles.

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