Growing Intrinsic Rewards


In our last blog we examined the three primary tasks of adolescence as defined by Laurence Steinberg in his book, Age of Opportunity. Here is how Steinberg defines it, “The adolescent brain undergoes particularly extensive maturation in regions that regulate the experience of pleasure, the ways in which we view and think about other people, and our ability to exercise self-control. These three brain systems—the REWARD system, the RELATIONSHIPS system, and the REGULATORY system—are the chief places where the brain changes during adolescence.”1

While in society’s care—whether that be foster care, corrections or education—young people who are “adolescing,” (which can begin at anywhere from 10-12 and end at up to 25) have specific tasks they need to begin developing. This stage is finite, meaning we must recognize and help young people with their adolescence or they lose that stage forever.

In her book, The Teenage Brain, neuroscientist, Francis E. Jensen, states, “While hormones can explain some of what is going on, there is much more at play in the teenage brain, where new connections between brain areas are being built and many chemicals, especially neurotransmitters, the brain’s ‘messengers,’ are in flux. This is why adolescence is a time of true wonder. Because of the flexibility and growth of the brain, adolescents have a window of opportunity with an increased capacity for remarkable accomplishments. But flexibility, growth, and exuberance are a double-edged sword because an “open” and excitable brain also can be adversely affected by stress, drugs, chemical substances, and any number of changes in the environment. And because of an adolescent’s often overactive brain, those influences can result in problems dramatically more serious than they are for adults.” 2

The two keys to any functional reward system are

  1. They are intrinsic rather than extrinsic
  2. So they must come from the engagement of the youth, rather than coercion by the adults around them.

Engagement always begins with active listening which is also a good foundation for helping people deal with trauma. In the book, Originals, author Adam Grant cites the importance of starting relationships with values instead of rules.3 A basic premise of our program (A Compelling Life) is that all people have values, they may just not know

  • What a value is
  • Why values are important
  • And/or have not been able to articulate their own values yet.


Values are critical because they are the basis of decision-making in a mature life. Maturity is not a chronological factor as much as it is a factor of making decisions based upon values rather than circumstances or peers. A person can never mature if their decisions are based on a whim, what others say, or the immediate circumstances in which they find themselves.


A value has three key components;

  1. It is the way I want to be treated
  2. It is the way I will treat others
  3. No matter how they treat me.

If I change my behavior based upon the situation, that reveals neither maturity nor values. It is adolescent behavior and the belief is merely a convenience rather than a value.


We all learn our values by who values us and we can grow our values by valuing others. The values we learn from others may not always be healthy. My father—and many in his generation—could not understand the difference between loving his children (seeking our unconditional dignity) and manipulating us (only giving approval based upon our performance).  Part of becoming a mature adult for all of us is realizing our parents did the best they could with what they knew and ridding ourselves of the false belief that our parents should have been perfect. Despite being human (imperfect), there were moments when my father loved me to the best of his ability even when it was inconvenient or sacrificial. In those moments, I can recall what I experienced and what he hoped for my life. To learn about a person’s values, I need to ask about those people in their life and inquire, “What did he/she/they want for you?”

I have asked that question thousands of times in detention centers, jails and group homes. The top three responses I receive are

  • “They wanted me to have healthy relationships.”
  • “They wanted me to live a meaningful life (usually an expression of a person’s spirituality in some form).”
  • “They wanted me to live a sober life.”

The last issue really shows me the veracity of Johann Hari’s statement in his book, Chasing the Scream. “Trauma is to addiction what obesity is to heart attacks.”4 As I look upon the faces of the people in our correctional system, I realize that we are—by and large—punishing people for childhood trauma.

Telling is Not Teaching

Like developing effective Intrinsic Rewards, effective values education begins with engagement rather than telling. Telling is not teaching.

We can easily make major false assumptions in the delivery of values curriculum that stunt the capacity of those we are attempting to teach to assimilate the curriculum.

  • We may assume people in our culture know what a value is
  • We may assume people share the same values as the majority culture around them
  • We may assume that telling is teaching and that if we test on the knowledge we think we have imparted and the learner passes, they walk away with a deeply embedded sense of values

Nothing could be further from the truth. Telling values is the basis of coercion, not engagement, and our real goal in the diatribe is often compliance, not values-sharing. In my own numerous conversations with young people and adults, the primary response I receive from people when I ask them, “How do you want me to treat you?” is, “with respect.” When I query further and say, “I’m not sure I understand what respect means to you.” The response is, “Treat me fair and treat me safe.”

That conversation becomes the basis of establishing common values in our relationship and an agreement for how we will treat each other. “So if I treat you so you feel safety and fairness while we’re together, will you also help others experience that atmosphere here? Can we hold each other to that promise?”

We do not—and indeed—must not presume to push our values and rules on others and then attempt to coerce them into behaviors we deem acceptable. Instead, we need to learn what values we already share, get them on paper and agree to holding each other accountable.


AGE OF OPPORTUNITY; Lessons from the new science of adolescence, Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., © 2011, Laurence Steinberg, pg. 37

THE TEENAGE BRAIN: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults (pp. 22-23). Jensen, Frances E.; Nutt, Amy Ellis (2015-01-06). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. This blog will focus on helping young people build intrinsic rewards.

ORIGINALS; How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant, © Adam Grant, 2016, Viking Press, pg. 164

CHASING THE SCREAM: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (Kindle Locations 3110-3111)Hari, Johann (2015-01-20).. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. 


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