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Understanding What Motivates Us (And Our Children): The Fire and the Carrot

Updated: May 8, 2023

When it comes to moving forward, feeling accomplished, and being productive in daily life, it can feel hard to get or stay motivated, especially for folks with ADHD or other things that make executive functioning (EF) difficult.

For parents and teacher of kids and teens with EF struggles, it can seem impossible to help them find ways to push past EF roadblocks. Identifying and utilizing the different kinds of external motivators can really help. Consequences and reinforcers—whether imposed by the parent or teacher or ones that arise naturally in life—can serve as the driving forces that propel us forward. The temperaments of the camel and the horse and how they respond to their different external motivators—the fire and the carrot--can help us think about what actually motivates us and the loved ones in our lives:

The Camel’s Fire:

The camel is motivated by something unpleasant behind them! Think about how the camel spends hour after hour carrying its owners heavy pack in the middle of the desert. When the camel finally becomes exhausted and needs a rest, it lays down and wants to stay there! The camel uses its stubbornness to keep laying down—despite the owner’s best efforts to pull it along! It refuses to get up and moving, no matter how hard the owner pulls its reigns. In order to get the camel back up on its feet, the owner digs a small hole underneath the camel and places a fire in the hole—not to burn or hurt the camel—but to propel it forward. The camel is motivated to move forward to get away from something so unpleasant! The fire represents a consequence.

In life and especially in adulthood, we all face consequences that are no fun at all. While things like getting the electricity turned off because you forgot to pay the bill are super uncomfortable and even miserable, these things are just unpleasant enough to teach us an important lesson. That unpleasant situation propels us to do differently later because feeling that discomfort is something we don’t want to experience again! Consequences can be ADDING something, like extra chores or REMOVING something, like time with friends, or screen time.

The Horse’s Carrot:

The horse is motivated by something better that lies ahead. When a horse grows tired, its owner dangles a big, juicy carrot in front if its face—just out of reach of its lips! The horse continues to put one foot in front of the other in order to try to get closer to that tasty treat ahead! The horse is motivated to move forward to reach something great—a reward for its job well done. The carrot represents a reinforcer.

Reinforcers should be given AFTER the hard work is done. For instance, if watching TV is something you or your child really enjoys, use TV time as a reward for AFTER homework or household chores are complete. This way, you are reinforcing AKA strengthening the wanted behavior. Reinforcers can be ADDING something, like extra allowance money or screen time or REMOVING something, like a chore.

Both the fire and the carrot are valid and helpful motivators when used and talked about in effective ways. Most of us require a combination of both to stay moving forward. Think about yourself and your family members. Which ones might be more like the camel? And which ones are more like a horse? What types of things serve as carrots and fires in your life?


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