The Competition of Motivation


I could not have been more than 4 years old at the time and riding in the back of a hot baby blue Oldsmobile station wagon, skin sticking to the seat. Laying down, I pretended I was asleep. I was on the way to “swimming lessons” taught by the local guy who dressed up like a clown and was well known for throwing kids off the diving board, and I did not want to go. My mom carried me in though, not falling for my failed attempt at a snoring sound. Next thing you know I was on the end of a diving board with the clown from some Steven King novel more frightened by him than by the water (although it was pretty close). It was horrifying.

Gasping for air and swimming to my mom who was socializing with her friends seemingly not caring about my fight with a clown, I survived. I was able to swim and to dive off the diving board. I received so much enjoyment out of that, everything was OK. I loved the water…I learned to water ski not long after that…there were so many things about being in and around water that did (and still do) motivate me, that those fateful steps off the plank were helpful.

Motivation is a strange thing. We talk about it very freely…

“He’s just not motivated today…”

“I can’t seem to get motivated”

“Her motivation is different than mine”

We often do things we truly do not want to do because other “motivations” are stronger than our desire to avoid what we are doing. There is always a competition of motivations.

For example, I don’t necessarily like cleaning the dishes after dinner. However, I do it (sometimes).

My motivations are generally to:

a) make my wife happy,

b) get the mess out of the way so we don’t have to live in a roach infested dungeon 

c) I don’t want someone to unexpectedly come over and see that we are a bunch of lazy slobs.  

Therefore, I do the dishes. Those things won the motivation competition. I am sure you can think of a variety of things that you do (maybe even every day) that you don’t necessarily enjoy, but you do because there are OTHER motivations involved that overpower your drive to avoid the work and sit on your couch eating bon-bons.

But, just like the diving board, it was not always that way. I had not built the social motivation for doing those things. When I lived at home as a kid, I could care less if people thought my parents or I was a slob. I had to be motivated in other ways when I was that age.

We cannot avoid this constant battle of competing motivations when thinking about how our kids operate and behave.

I think parents often think the most powerful motivation for our children is the motivation to make us (their parents) happy and possibly to avoid us being mad at them. I gotta be honest…at younger ages this is pretty weak. But, we rely on it so much. One day, hopefully.

Should we teach our kids to do things they do not want to do to build an understanding of selflessness and duty to others? Yes. Should we rain Skittles and M&Ms every time they pick up their socks when we ask them to? NO. Should we teach them the social, environmental and safety reasons for listening to their parents despite their stronger desires? Absolutely.

It is all in how we get there 

If we teach our kids to be motivated by the avoidance or escape from discomfort (i.e. FEAR), you run the risk of setting up false or undesirable motivations: “I will do it, but only because I dont want to get yelled at.” That gets in the way of stronger motivations that can be the result of pushing your kid through something they don’t initially like.

We need to attribute positive reinforcers and positive experiences with doing those things that will, one day, be motivated by the “natural consequences” of their behavior. These social reinforcers are built over time…its your job to create them as powerful forces. Doing so through force and anger will not get you there and could result in damaging results later.

5 thoughts on “The Competition of Motivation

  1. My 4yr old son refused REFUSED to play in this weekends soccer games. He was so excited then he realized he had to take team pictures and shut down. He crossed his arms and rufused to play soccer. I did everything to coax him to play, took away everything and still didn’t budge. He has a strong separation issue but it never stopped him from playing soccer. After losing my cool we left. He went up to his room and stayed there all day. I can’t decide if it is anxiety, control, motivation or what. I am at a loss. I am reading all your posts that I think will help me but any advice for a stubborn child would be greatly appreciated!

  2. This becomes something more to talk about if it is a recurring issue. At this point, a one time event should not worry you. Sometimes when things come up that are unexpected (team picture), it blows the event out of the water for kids. This is tough because we know they want to play (at least we think so) and we want them to do that…have fun, $^#$%.

    One of the hardest things to do in these situations, but the right thing to do is to do nothing at all. Let him know he has choices to play or not, then don’t over-push or over-encourage or punish. Let him know, “we are going to stay until the end of the game. If you want to play, you should play. If not, we will be here. It would be fun if you played, but its ok if you don’t.” Hang out.

    As you have experienced, sometimes the harder you push, the more resistance you get. Don’t worry…he probably got knocked off course by the change in plans (what he thought the plans were) and that threw him…

    • Good to know I did all the wrong things! Ugh! I was so frustrated, embarrassed that I have made his punishment last until the next soccer game- No iPad or wii until he plays the next game. I guess that is the wrong tactic but I am not 100% sure I want to budge on that because he is finding other creative outlets to entertain himself. I am trying to be more positive driven as lots of your posts recommend to try and boost his confidence and today’s soccer practice went great. I let him know the expectation and pumped him up with simple praises to get over his anxiety. He was excited and had a great time. Thank you for responding to me so quickly I love all your posts. Btw- Mount Mommy was put to rest today thanks to your awesome post today!

  3. Pingback: 3 Reasons behavior plans fail and what to do about it. |

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