On Motivating Children

As any parent will tell you, one of the key challenges in parenting is teaching motivation.  In the beginning, toddlers learn to do things because you tell them to do them.  “Go brush your teeth; pick up your toys; be nice to your sister.”  As they grow, these pithy, little sayings turn into, “Do your homework; practice your instrument; be nice to your sister.”  The hope is that by the time the kids are old enough to have serious amounts of homework to do that they’ve already learned to brush their teeth twice a day, so the requests necessarily change.  Then parents further hope that the lessons the kids learn in high school while they are still under day-to-day parental charge stick with them through college and beyond.  In other words, it is a parent’s job to teach kids how to be successful, motivated adults.   This is something I hold dear, and I work very hard to follow the axiom on a daily basis.

This week, political scientist Barry Rubin wrote a blog posting on filling in as coach to his son’s soccer team.  He told the story as a parable, something applicable to Western Civilization.  It seems, as Rubin wrote, that the regular coach focused on the kids having fun and doing whatever they wanted, so he didn’t give more play time on the field to the better players; he didn’t have the players play the positions to which they were suited, and he didn’t teach them any particular skills.  He just wanted them to get out there and have fun, even if they lost every single game.  However, when it was Rubin’s turn to coach, he played the kids in particular positions even if someone else wanted to play that position; he gave the best players the most minutes on the field; and he told them to go out there and win!  Lo and behold, the kids won and felt great.  As Rubin says, “If you don’t care about winning, you’re merely handing triumph to the other side. In a soccer league that might not matter, yet in personal life, your level of achievement and satisfaction is going to depend on giving your best effort.  If a country is indifferent to succeeding, the opposing team’s success might be very costly indeed.”  Rubin agrees with me that we have to teach the kids not only to win, but to WANT to win – to hunger for it and work for it and do the best work possible for it.

In another entry from the blogosphere on the topic, Ilya Somin agrees with Rubin, stating, “Playing to win encourages better performance. People, including children, are unlikely to make a real effort if they are told that results don’t matter.”  He adds to this idea reminding readers that showing short-term benefits, especially for children, such a winning the game, outweigh the eventual benefits, such as physical fitness or good teamwork.  Most people see what is in front of them, not so far into the future.

In these stressful economic times, we have to work hard to grab onto what happiness and pleasure we can.  Our responsibility for teaching our children about motivation and working hard does not slide just because we as parents are feeling pressure or not getting benefits out of working hard right now.  The children of today are the leaders of tomorrow.  I know it’s a hokey and trite statement, but it is a true one.  If we fail to instill the hunger to work hard to win, then we are failing a generation of people.  Rubin can liken the idea to the problems in Western Civilization and Somin can discuss the education benefits, but to me, I plan to keep it closer to home and teach my children that hard work pays off in the end.

I have not been feeling very motivated of late, but children learn what the see, not always what parents tell them, which is a story for another day.  But what that means is *BACK TO WRITING*  Not only will I appreciate the effort in the long run, but my children will appreciate it now.

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