Obedient or Motivated?

Sep 8 / Jill Bertelsen

Trustworthy, diligent, hard-working, honest, kind, and smart are just a few of the characteristics that I  want my children to develop and become. When you ask parents what they hope their children will become I would guess a lot of them would say very similar things. But is how we are parenting and teaching reflecting those desires?

I remember as a new mom I had about a 1 or 2 month old newborn at church. After the service was over a mother came over to me and said something like “oh he is so cute I didn’t hear him cry during the whole service, what a great baby.” Looking back, I remember feeling proud that he was quiet, but later when he was noisy in public settings I felt that I had a child that was misbehaving.

This leads to my question: is a successful child one that is curious and kind, or obedient and excels in school? Parents and children seem to be praised if their child does exactly what they are told, if they sit quietly in the grocery cart, or if they walk across the field to the playground instead of running. Kids are taught that they are good children if they have good grades, score well on tests, and read the right amount of books for the class pizza party. At such a young age they have many pressures placed on them. A 2011 Pew research(http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/08/22/americans-say-kids-need-more-pressure-in-school-chinese-say-less/) study said that 64% of Americans feel like there is not enough pressure on children and that they need more. But in reality, there is pressure to be obedient, pressure to meet standards, and pressure to be just like all the other children.

I wonder if we are too focused on meeting standards put on us and our children that we miss teaching our children how to learn, to love to learn, and to explore. We focus on controlling our children and often they either pendulum swing to excessively complying or excessively rebelling. When they rebel we punish them, take away privileges, and sometimes even shame them through phrases like “Billy’s mom loves how Billy does his homework, and I would love if you did it just like Billy”. Phrases like this make it seem to our children that our love for them, or our approval of them depends on their behavior.

Now I have been guilty of this, and this is a cultural norm. If we asked a parent if their love was unconditional for their child, they would respond yes. But is that being communicated to our children through our words and actions? Often as parents we look at how other children act and we want ours to act like them. But there is a difference between an internally motivated child and an intrinsically motivated child. An internally motivated child is one who has been nagged or pressured for so long that they force themselves to conform to the expectations given to them. Whereas an intrinsically motivated child does something because they want to do it and see the benefits or harms of that action or behavior.

It is so deep in American culture to create internally motivated children to meet the standards we created for them behaviorally and academically. Children get good grades for doing well, or even simply completing the homework. They throw pizza parties if they finish 3 books before the end of the semester. The children come home with sticker charts to show their parents that they behaved well in school. Alfie Kohn, the author of Unconditional Parenting, talks about the over-focus on obedience and standards. He said (Children are) “so busy trying to deal with the implications of failing that (they) don’t have the time and energy to do what it takes to succeed.”

If it is so ingrained in our culture what can we do as parents to help our children realize the objective of a behavior instead of focusing on the reward? At the dinner table when they talk about how they got a pizza party you could ask what books they read, which was their favorite, and what did they learn from the book. Instead of what pizza topping did you get? When they show you the sticker chart ask which one they like the best and what class they were in when they got it. What were they learning in that class that day? Or if they were nice to a classmate and earned it, ask about the classmates and what they like about that person. Instead of I am so proud that you have 6 stickers.

It can be difficult in a society full of punishments, rewards, and obedience to raise children who are intrinsically motivated. But as we focus their attention on developing strong morals and encourage them to do things they want to do we will be able to raise a strong generation.

Thank you!