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.