The Better Carrot


Have you heard of the “carrot and stick” approach for motivating people? It is essentially saying you can use rewards or penalties to motivate others to achieve desired outcomes. It’s based on an old story about getting a donkey to move forward by either dangling a carrot in front of his face or hitting him with a stick from behind. While I am not calling our kids donkeys, this basic motivational principle is very relevant to parenting!

As parents, we use carrots and sticks too. We tend to either find an effective incentive to reward our kids for good behavior or an effective punishment to correct them when they are out of alignment. For some, carrots may look like extra allowance for good grades or sweets or desired toys for good achievement or performance. Kids know they get something they want if they perform well. We’ve certainly tried this ourselves and while at times effective, we have also found it can incite discouragement in our kids’ hearts and reinforce the mindset that they must strive to fix their weaknesses.

As Analyn and I have learned to play to our kids strengths, we have found that there are better carrots than money, toys, or ice cream to incentivize our children and encourage their outstanding performance. Try tying the carrots to their strong activity. For example, with our son who likes to engage in strategy games, we invested time to record his favorite strategy shows so he could make sure he was able to watch them. For the son who was strong in a sport, we would invest in special equipment to give him an advantage. In this way, the carrot is actually working to enhance the strength, making this a double win! Better carrots work to reinforce our children’s unique strengths, not merely overall performance.

It’s so easy to focus on overall outcomes like a student’s GPA or whether they won or lost the game. But instead of looking at an overall GPA for instance, look at a specific subject your child has potential to really excel in. Then set a high bar for them to achieve excellence, even going above and beyond, in that particular area. Offer carrots that are relevant and affirm the strength whether it be a trip to the bookstore for your child with a particular acumen in English or a new computer program for your coding whiz. As we hone in on our children’s strengths and motivate them to develop further, we can do so in a way that doesn’t leave them distracted by discouragement. Maybe your athletic child’s team lost the game, but his perfect shot mid-game is still worth celebrating and rewarding.

Better carrots incentivize our kids in the areas they have the greatest potential for success. So, the child who is strong in school gets incentives for good grades in their subject of strength while the child strong in sports gets incentives to play their best and the nurturing homebody child receives incentives tied to their excellence in housework, meal prep, and caring for family members in their unique and significant way. We invest in what we value. So see and value the strengths in your child and tie incentives - better carrots - to their strengths and watch them flourish!

At the end of the day, we all can add words of praise and affirmation to our bucket of carrots and offer those much more readily than we do. It is our words that will ring in our children’s ears for years to come. Use you words to reinforce their strengths more than their shortcomings. Praise them for a job well done, your words will be wind in their sails.

As you think about each of your kids today, what activity do they each excel in? What are some better carrots you can offer them to perform at a higher level?

Brandon Miller