carrots and sticks - and dirty pants


2004-11-24

In education and motivation work there is the common notion of 'carrot and stick' to describe the two methods of motivating others (students, children or employees) to do a certain thing or act in a certain desired way. The 'carrot' is motivation by reward, or rather by promise of reward, while the 'stick' is motivation by promise of punishment or other adverse effects.

Most agree that the 'carrot' is the more desirable method and usually works far better than the motivation by fear of punishment.

But for me as a parent at least there is a new aspect to this. There are situations where neither methods works.

My son for example has a problem with going to the toilet on time. So we tried about everything in our book to help him learn to go on time. The most natural of course being to show anger or disappointment when things went wrong. Thats how we were brought up after all. When we educate our children we all first naturally emulate our own parents. 'You are a big boy now, big boys don't pooh into thier pants do they? Don't you want to be a big boy?' Of course he wants to be a big boy. Calling him a baby when he had his pants full was a very strong negative motivation. 'I'm NOT a baby! I'm a big boy!' - 'But big boys don't crap in their pants!' - silence...

So much for that one. It helped a lot - not.

Of course we thought about our approach a lot and decided we'd try the classical carrot approach instead. Teaching by reward being so much more 'good' and all.

So we devised a bonus programme where he could collect stars for each time he'd successfully go to the toilet and when he has enough choose a toy he really wants (there is no short supply of things he'd really love to have)...

Well, to date he has exactly one star and a score of dirty pants. The 'carrot' we choose is a very strong one - he really wants those toys - and we are shure he knows exactly what to do to get them.

Only there seems to another 'motivation' that is far stronger. I have been talking with him about this and it appeaars that he simply doesn't want to pooh at all. He is simply so adverse to it that he tries to avoid it completly. Of course that works - not at all.

So what to do? I think in this situation it will will be neccessary to work with the deeper (negative) motivation and not try and overlay it with arteficial motivation. Arteficial because in the core this bonus programme is not his own motivation but ours. The trick would be to make it his, but here we have an even stronger one active. So before we deal with that one, any other will be bound to fail. Solving the underlying 'motivation' (or problem), we might not even need any arteficial motivations at all. After all a wet and stinky pant is unpleasant to him as much as it is to us. I think that is in itself sufficient motivation to go to the toilet, isn't it?

So the real challenge here is how to solve this basic problem? We need to work with his basic negative motivation and not try and trick him into doing something he currently doesn't want to do.

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