How do you motivate someone who is living a comfortable life? We will find out today what drives you and your children and what can you do to influence a child’s motivation.
Recently, my friend interviewed me for his YouTube channel and we discussed parenting differences, especially between how we were raised in the East and how we are raising our children in the West. Since that interview was a casual chit chat, we did not go deep into the nuances of parenting and education. My core message was that the Western education system emphasizes on internal motivation and drive versus external pressures. But this message is simplistic and naive unless we qualify it with more details. We need to describe how internal motivation correlates with the enjoyment of work and how parenting styles can influence internal motivation.
Delving a little deeper into parenting styles, there are four types as you can see in the diagram.
Authoritarian: This style is very common in Eastern cultures and is also prevalent in the West in traditional families. This style is focused on obedience and punishment. For eg., the parent with this style is more likely to say “You do this because I said so and I am your parent”. This parenting style is low on sensitivity.
Uninvolved: I have not seen many uninvolved parents in my social circles but I am aware that there are plenty of such parents in both the East and the West. These parents are neither interested in enforcing rules nor interested in connecting deeply with their children. This parenting style is low on sensitivity as well.
Permissive: This is another common parenting style. These parents are sensitive but they don’t enforce rules. The children become entitled and run over their parents.
Authoritative: This is considered the best parenting style. The parents are sensitive and also enforce rules. This parent is most likely to explain why the rules exist in the first place. They are also more likely to build internal motivation in their children.
Whether you enjoy what you do depends on many constraints and factors- your responsibilities, your financial commitment, and the availability of desirable work in your geography. These are external constraints and factors but there are also internal factors- the most important of which is internal motivation. Imagine, you grew up in relative prosperity and the external factors were not enough to motivate you. How can you motivate yourself or how can your parents motivate you?
The theory of internal motivation: Daniel Pink in his groundbreaking book Drive writes about this theory in great detail. The idea is that parents and educators can help build internal motivation in children. We are not naive to suggest that the children can build internal motivation for all their tasks and goals. We still need to apply external factors of carrots and sticks for humdrum activities around cleanliness, routine, and discipline. However, for educational and career goals, building an internal drive is the way to go, if external circumstances like money is not a roadblock. If the parents and educators fail to build internal drive in children, they will have to eventually resort to putting external pressure on children if they want them to become financially independent. An example of this would be kicking a child out of the house after college if the now-adult child doesn’t exhibit a drive to become financially independent (Of course, they can stay at home with parents till the time they are not doing it to avoid building their own careers). The question is which strategy works better- focusing on external pressures right from an early age or focusing on external pressures only if you were unsuccessful in building internal motivation in children? I would argue that it depends on the economic circumstances of the family and the opportunities available in that culture or country. For eg. if the children are highly motivated to pursuing useless college degrees, it’s a parent’s responsibility to inform them about the financial implications of such decisions. The parents should also choose to not pay for such degrees and warn their children about the long term consequences of high student debt. If despite such warnings, children choose that path, then they should be informed that the consequences of their decisions are only theirs and not their parents’.
With this background information, let’s come to the meat of the issue- how to inculcate internal motivation?
The Right Mindset: Researchers call it The Growth Mindset. The idea is that if parents and educators praise the effort of children instead of their inherent abilities, children become internally motivated to put effort. What happens is that this reinforces in their brain that success and failure are functions of effort and not some inherent ability. Such kids are less likely to say things like- “I did not get the Math gene“. When they see failure as not an inherent ability problem, they push themselves harder to grow in any given discipline. They are likely to try hard problems even if they might fail since they don’t see failing as a reflection of their character. Authoritative parents are more likely to engage in such exercise with their children.
Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness:
Autonomy: Kids have to be given agency and sense of control. Agency means that children feel that they have a say in the matter and this improves their internal locus of control. This helps kids in owning up to their responsibilities instead of blaming external circumstances. A funny example from my culture would be, if you had the autonomy to marry whomever you wanted to, you cannot blame your parents for a bad marriage. You would be internally motivated to own up to your responsibilities instead of blaming your parents for a bad match, which you can if you were married away in a traditional arranged marriage. In a traditional arranged marriage, it’s easier to blame the parents for ruining your life. A more relevant example would be choosing classes, interests, sports, and careers. All other things being equal, a child is more likely to be motivated if she had a say in choosing what she wanted to do with her life. Again, Authoritative parents are more likely to take their kids’ opinions into consideration, over Authoritarian parents. Permissive parents on the other hand can run the danger of going completely by their kids’ whims and impulses.
Competence: When parents and educators help children build competence, that increases children’s internal drive. The better they get at something, the more motivated they are to work towards it. But competence should not be the sole focus, at the expense of Autonomy and The Right Mindset. If you don’t believe me, read Andre Agassi’s autobiography “Open”. While he was highly competent and his father helped build that competence, it was done against his will (complete lack of Autonomy) and he detested playing Tennis and felt miserable throughout his career, despite the external theatrics.
Relatedness: This is about having adults show genuine interest in their children’s work. While this may sound like an external motivator, it helps build internal motivation because humans are social animals. For eg. a child tends to enjoy a subject if he likes the teacher. Educators and parents who connect well with children build a strong sense of internal motivation for learning that subject or discipline. Sometimes, scientists also use the word Purpose. When humans feel strongly about a Purpose, they tend to be internally motivated towards that Purpose.
Optimal Amount of Dopamine: Finally, we are talking about the neurotransmitter Dopamine. You might ask how, as a parent or an educator, can I influence the amount of a neurotransmitter in a child’s brain. Dopamine flows when the external rewards are a surprise because Dopamine works on a principle, the scientific term of which is called “reward prediction error”. When an unexpected reward is received, then Dopamine flows, and internal motivation increases. The keyword here is unexpected. If a reward is expected, then it erodes internal motivation. Dopamine also flows in an optimal way when challenges and skills are of a match. When a task is more challenging than your skills, then you tend to get frustrated. When a task is less challenging than your skills, then you get bored. Hence, as your skills improve, your challenges should be raised as well, so that the optimal flow of Dopamine happens and the internal motivation sustains. This can also happen when the other pieces of The Right Mindset, Autonomy, Competence/Mastery, and Relatedness/Purpose fall into place and Flow ( a term for describing the state of experience when challenges and skills match and it leads to intense absorption in the activity) is experienced.
That was a long discussion on internal motivation and it warrants all the nuances since it is a very difficult topic, especially in situations where external motivation is not enough to keep people interested in their careers and jobs. I personally believe that life is not one size fits all and all solutions should be contextual. But at the same time, I also believe that we should understand the latest science behind motivation instead of just operating with a single-minded approach of carrots and sticks, which might work in some contexts while not work in others. It is also important to understand your goals since that will help you in choosing the right strategy for your child. Enjoy the journey and you will, especially if you are internally motivated!