Motivation is a funny thing. Sometimes we feel like we’re filled with inspiration and an awareness of the things we need to do to get to where we want to go. Sometimes we just want to sit in our pjs and watch television. Some people are highly motivated by work, money and career success, they are happy with their lot and they seem to really ‘have it all’. While others have chosen to live an alternative lifestyle, following their passions and exploring their creativity and yet seem incapable of lifting themselves out from the dark fugue of depression that shrouds their existence.
To say that this is all understandable based entirely on the one word, motivation, would be facile and misleading. After all, there are differences in background, educational attainment, social pressure and biology which all factor into a person’s constitution and which will all affect their life choices.
However, for now we are looking at motivation and the role that this plays in a child’s ability to engage and sustain their focus on problem solving tasks. More specifically, we need to look at the difference between the different types of motivation to understand what makes a good problem solver and what does not.
Motivation can come from three different sources: external sources are anything where a reward is offered for the completion of any task; internal sources are those which come from within a person’s own ambitions and which satisfy a person’s personal desires; and lastly, there is addiction. Mercifully this last one is not an issue which we will need to delve into in a book about nurturing children to become better problem solvers.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent exclaim ‘good job’ to their progeny as they completed some completely inane task I’m quite sure I’d be sitting at the top of a turret in my castle whilst writing instead of, well, here. Anyway, the point is that parents the world over seem to have some sort of compulsion to shout ‘good job’, or some variation of that, whenever they witness their child do something.
If you look carefully though, you will see that children whose parents rely on the ‘good job’ school of praise will start to turn their heads towards their parents as soon as they complete a task. Gone down the slide? Look at mummy and wait for a ‘good job!’ Done a wee on your potty? Look to see if daddy noticed – or better yet, bring it to him to see, ‘Good job!’ Completed another painting (in 6.8 seconds)? Show it to mummy and daddy and see what they think, ‘Good job!’
The issue with all of this good-jobbing and the subsequent way in which the child quickly learns to turn and look to the parent to see if they’ve noticed their latest accomplishment, is that it is shifting the child’s focus from being proud of themselves for what they’ve achieved to checking to see if anyone else is proud of what they did.
The development of this ‘external locus of control’ is insidious and starts right from the very first shout of praise. Unfortunately, what happens to children who have been encouraged to have a very strong external locus of control in their early years is that by the time they are teenagers, their self-worth is wrapped up in the praise and acknowledgement that they receive from others. And the older they get, the less notice they get (partially because they keep themselves locked in their bedrooms for hours on end so no one actually sees what they’re doing), which means that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for them to be praised.
This then leads onto the world of university where, firstly, everyone is obviously already very clever and intelligent and blah blah blah, so getting a good mark on an exam doesn’t set the individual apart from the crowd. Additionally, it’s not in the university lecturer’s job description to spend hours bigging up the young adults in their care, at best they hope to deliver the information they have to share in a way that is conducive to being understood, at worst they are only there teaching because it provides them with the money and time to pursue their own academic research.
It’s no wonder then that life satisfaction, rates of depression, dropping out of university and indeed, suicide, are as high as they are in this population. As they move into the ‘real’ world, people who were raised with a very strong external locus of control are not able to sustain the level of praise required to feed their needs. But consider the alternative.
The opposite of the external locus of control is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an internal locus of control. Here a person finds their motivation and desire comes from their own internal awareness of their wants or needs. They have lived a life where they’ve learned to connect their actions and efforts to their success and do not seek external validation for their achievements.
Consider the child who is raised without ‘good jobs’. When they get to the bottom of the slide, they look to their mummy and discover that she is actually talking to someone else. In this instance of benign neglect the mother isn’t ignoring the child because she couldn’t care less about her safety or happiness. Indeed, the mother may well be casting frequent glances out of the corner of her eye to ensure that the child is safe. But this mother knows that going down slides is super-fun and the child doesn’t need even one iota of praise for accomplishing this task. The child will continue to climb the ladder and slide down the slide for exactly as long as it continues to be exhilarating and engaging not because they’ve been praised for doing it but because it is fun.
What about our child who has finally used his potty for the first time? Sure, daddy is probably delighted that this has happened, and not just because he’s tired of shelling out for nappies, but show me an adult who gets a round of applause for using the toilet and I’ll show you my pet dinosaur. Seriously though, the child has done something remarkable: they’ve changed a behaviour that has been entrenched for a couple of years; they’ve potentially conquered a fear of the potty; they’ve certainly conquered the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not they were going to be able to manage this task. So acknowledge those things: ‘you’ve been working hard to get the courage to use that potty,’ ‘you sat there for a long time before the wee finally came out,’ ‘you have been using a nappy for a long time, that’s a big change for you.’ All of these are examples of ways in which an adult can acknowledge the process that the child has gone through rather than the outcome.
Imagine the artist who, when she shows her parents her artwork, gets, rather than praise, an opportunity to evaluate the process that she’s been through. In answer to ‘do you like it?’ a parent can respond, ‘are you pleased with it?’ or ‘tell me about how you chose the colours that you used,’ or even ‘this has taken you a long time to make, does that mean you feel that you’ve worked really hard?’ This is process-based evaluation and keeps the focus very firmly on how the child feels about their accomplishments.
Fast forward to the teenage years, to a child who has been encouraged for their entire childhood to be proud of their own achievements, to acknowledge the sustained effort that they’ve applied to their tasks, to evaluate their success or failure based on their own personally held values and ambitions. This teenager will not need someone to pat them on the back for getting an A on their history test or a teacher to acknowledge that they’ve kept their locker tidy – they will know that they’ve done these things because they chose to do them, they focused on what needed to be done in order to achieve them and they feel a strong sense of accomplishment because they know they did what they set out to.
A child who has a strong internal locus of control is more likely to feel confident to stand up for their own ideas and to have the self-awareness to know what they are going to need to be able to do to accomplish something. This means that they can pursue tasks in the full knowledge of what they’re going to have to go through and aware that there will be set–backs that they have to achieve.
Now, how does all of this relate to problem solving? I hear you starting to ask. Thank you. Because having a very strong internal locus of control means that a person is far more likely to be motivated to take on tasks. Knowing that they alone are responsible for applying effort, evaluating their failures and persisting in working to achieve their ends gives them the most important tool of all – the understanding that they are capable of achieving anything to which they are willing to apply effort. Knowing that you have power over the outcomes of your decisions means that you are more likely to take on new tasks, pursue new interests and feel satisfied that you will be able to control your outcomes.
A problem solver needs, firstly, to understand that they will be capable of solving a problem. Even though I’m a staunch pacifist, I don’t think this position is summed up more neatly than i Sun Tzu’s Art of War, where he states “Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.” Knowing that you are going to be able to do what you are setting out to do is the fundamental first step to being an effective problem solver.
A child beset by doubt, insecurity and fear won’t tackle new problems because he knows it won’t work out for him. A child raised to value their worth only by the value that someone else places on them is not able to see for themselves all of that which they are capable. A child who has always needed to check in that what they have done is ‘good enough’ will never know for himself that he possesses all that he needs to determine whether he has achieved something of significance.
No one who has ever done anything really great or successful has ever done it simply because he was attracted by what we call a “reward” or by fear of what we call a “punishment”…. Every victory and every advance in human progress comes from an inner compulsion.Maria Montessori
(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)
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