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Children need self-motivation

I overheard a little boy recently inviting a friend to his house to watch a movie.

“Oh, I’m not allowed to watch PG-13 movies,” the friend answered.

“That’s OK,” his crooked little playmate continued, “just tell your mom we’re doing something else, and then we’ll watch it when she leaves,” he smiled at his own clever self.



To my delight, the friend looked horrified when he said emphatically, “No. That would be lying to my mom.”

This boy clearly valued his relationship with his mom, but it spoke volumes about his own self-motivation. Even at a young age he obviously wasn’t tempted to do the wrong thing just because no one was there to stop him.



This kind of enthusiasm for doing what is right will save him some heartache someday when, say, his college roommate asks him to cheat on an exam or his friends want him to make a beer run after he’s already had a few.

But how do we teach self-motivation? How do we get our kids to do what’s right simply because it’s the right thing to do?

In the world of politically correct uniformity and standardized tests it’s getting harder and harder to allow kids the opportunity for internal motivation.

One of our biggest examples is in school. These days, teachers teach to the test and kids learn to the test. Someone else tells them how well they did and parents are told to “compare” their child against everyone in his or her classroom, not to mention the nation.

Cheers to the student and family who can look at these tests and say, “OK, that’s interesting. Now, where do I want to go from here?”

Cheers to the teacher who can look at the results and say to a student, “These tests tell me about your performance, but what I really want you to know is that your eyes light up when we talk about literature (or math/philosophy/nature). Let’s build on that.”

Ultimately, when it comes to standardized tests in particular, the carrot dangling at the end of the rope should be opportunities for individual growth and improvement. I think most schools and communities would agree ” after all, No Child Left Behind strives to meet the needs of every child. Unfortunately we’ve gotten too attached to the outcome as a score (who won?) rather than a barometer for each child’s growth and potential. In the end our kids chase the carrot because they’re told to, not because they have a hunger for it.

Most people would agree that internal motivation comes from encouraging a child’s effort, not praising the outcome. It comes from creating a safe place for them to make mistakes (and sharing our own mistakes with kids). And it comes from promoting self-reflection ” “how do you feel about that grade/performance/effort?”

Now consider this: which teenager is less likely to get in the car with a drunk driver ” the one who is externally or internally motivated? The one who’s motivated by what other people may think, or the one who’s motivated by his own sense of self-worth?

Which one are you?

Which one are you raising?

Charla Belinski teaches the parenting course Redirecting Children’s Behavior. She writes from her home in Snowmass, and her column appears every other Sunday in the Post Independent.


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