Motivation and our kids

A colleague e-mailed me a link to this video a couple weeks ago. It is all about how we are really motivated. After watching this though, I started to think about how it relates to how we motivate our kids, particularly when it comes to encouraging good behaviour and discouraging bad behaviour. Take a look at the video and then let’s chat.

This video brought up a couple questions for me.

1) Is adult motivation and child motivation different?

From the perspective of someone who works in human resources and career services, I totally get this. I do believe that we are most motivated to do things when we feel a purpose and have the autonomy to make our own choices. We feel good when we are good at something and can demonstrate mastery over a skill.

Are our children motivated in the same way? I tend to think they are. I have seen the pride in Audrey’s eyes when she masters a new skill. That pride is totally internal, it doesn’t come from the expectation that she will be rewarded. Anyone who has a toddler probably is very familiar with the phrase “I do it”. They want autonomy and they want it now. They want to make their own choices, assert their will and have control over their world. I believe sometimes kids ‘get’ purpose more then adults do. We get lost in all the day to day figuring out our lives making ends meet stuff. Toddlers in particular, seem to see life for what it really is; get basic needs met, connect with the world, learn, love and have fun. So I can see these three basic principles of motivation at work.

2) How does this related to how we parent?

One of the idea’s this video challenges is the notion that if we reward good behaviour you will get more good behaviour. This is a key parenting principle that many, many of us are operating on. We are told to ignore the bad behaviour and focus on rewarding the good behaviour. We praise our children a lot. I am not saying that approach is wrong, but does it work?

This video suggests that rewards work when they are exercising a ‘mechanical skill’ but as soon as they cross over into ‘rudimentary cognitive skill’ then a larger reward only leads to poorer performance. And really, for a toddler for example, doesn’t everything require cognitive skill? I mean, they are learning everything from scratch… you can see in their efforts them puzzling through what in 2 weeks will then become a ‘mechanical skill.’

At the same time, the video does suggest that for things where we want someone to “follow along and get the right answer” and for “following rules” the reward system does work. This suggests to me that there are times and in some circumstances where it make sense to reward good behaviour. However, I think the implication is that it has to be very clear, straight forward and linear. When we are asking our child, for example, to make decisions based on more complex set of information and circumstances, it crosses over into the cognitive skill piece and rewards may not work. It is better then, in those circumstances, to support them to instead have the autonomy, mastery and purpose to make better decisions? Encouraging independence, providing choice and supporting learning of values is going to have a greater impact then just rewards.

Perhaps the idea in this video about adults and pay at work, the concept that you need to pay enough to take the issue of money off the table, could also be applied to kids. Perhaps we need to praise enough to get the issue of praise off the table. What I mean by that is that every parent wants their kid to know that they are loved, appreciated, and that we are proud of them. I just can’t help but blurt out a praise when Audrey does something new and really wonderful. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I know there has been a lot of criticism lately about over-praising. And I do think it is true that praising constantly for every little thing can cause a child to be dependent on praise for validation and then make life pretty hard when, as they grow up, that praise fades away. (Many millennial site that lack of praise at work is a major cause of dissatisfaction.) Internal motivation is where it is at. But I do think we also all deeply want to feel recognized and valued. It is all about balance.

I also find it interesting that what motivates adults is also what many of us strive to support our children in developing. “Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose”. I believe many of us feel that if we can encourage our children to be able to take leadership over their lives, master a certain number of skills and interests and then have purpose in their life, then our child will be successful. Looking at it from a point of those being the key factors that motivate adults seems to back that goal up as being a good one to strive for.

Really, this is all well and good in theory. But we all know that it isn’t so easy in practice. When you are trying to motivate your screaming kid to go to bed or get out of the house in the morning, I am not sure how much this theoretical stuff will help. You do what you have to do and what seems to work best. I don’t know how much you can get a toddler to understand the purpose when it comes to leaving the house in the morning. And sure they might be proud of themselves over having some autonomy and mastery over the process, but if that means you are a hour late for work because they are trying to do it their way… well… that just isn’t going to work either. So grain of salt and all….

I don’t really have any clear conclusions about this. It’s not like watching this video is going to change how I parent… but it is interesting to think about and do I think it brings up some good points to consider.


2 responses to “Motivation and our kids

  1. Jocelyn December 8, 2010 at 8:25 am

    Great post and definitely food for thought. I need to digest this and may have more comments later.

  2. Briana December 8, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Fantastic post. Thank you so much for sharing that video. I had come across some research on motivation a year or so ago, but it wasn’t that detailed.

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