Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)


July 6, 2014

What are we teaching children?

ASHLAND — It is in the nature of children to want to please their parents, grandparents, and to a lesser degree even other adults who are not related to them.

This makes sense when you consider they are totally dependent (physically) upon adult caregivers for a large portion of their formative years. In addition, children learn first by imitation and the reactions of adults to their own actions. Adults establish the rules children learn to follow — or manipulate in some cases — from the very beginning of their lives; and setting those rules, those habits, is what shapes the child and overshadows the adult he or she will eventually become.

If we aren’t careful, the rules and the motivations we instill in our children might not be exactly what we had planned.

There are a lot of factors and situations in life that motivate a person regardless of age. Most motivators, however, can be distilled down to two basic types: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation, simply put, is motivation that is based on external rewards, where intrinsic is based on internal rewards. An award, a celebration, or even a paycheck are examples of an external reward.

A feeling of satisfaction over a task well done, helping a neighbor simply because he or she needs help or any instance of kindness, are examples of internal rewards.

Unfortunately, motivation is more often than not a combination of the two types. A person can enjoy an award for something that gives deep personal satisfaction, or even makes a living providing a service that enriches the community overall, but balance is the key. That balance is exceptionally crucial when it comes to teaching children. Parents want their children to do well in the world, and most want their children to be compassionate individuals as well. But how we focus their motivation determines which (or both) types of motivations they will follow.

A recent study by Rick Weissbourd at the Harvard Graduate School of Education would seem to point to the fact that children perceive what values are most important to parents based on how parents react to certain things. Weissbourd surveyed 10,000 children from 33 school districts to determine what the children thought parents found to be most important. Achievement was rated at the top, with the children believing  all or most of their peers would agree. The children surveyed believed their parents thought achievement was more important than personal happiness or caring for others as well. A sobering consensus, and more so because those children surveyed didn’t say they believed that way, but rather that they thought their parents believed that way.

The study goes on to report many of the negative aspects of children being driven too hard to achieve, but the truly disturbing aspect is: what are we doing to our kids? Drive to achieve is necessary to get by in an economy that is becoming increasingly more competitive, but kindness and compassion can’t be left by the wayside, either. There has to be a way to maintain both, and it is the job of adults to find the way. Children will learn what they are taught, even when they are taught “wrong,” so what is being taught needs to be clear and balanced.

We need to reward our children when they achieve in sports and academics, but we also need to reward them when they help others. A medal is wonderful when they do well and achieve, but a “thank you” or an expression of pride is just as important when they do things simply because they enjoy them or they need to be done.

Human beings aren’t that simple after all, and it requires all sorts of motivation, and we do our children a disservice if we fail to teach them that.

CHARLES ROMANS is a freelance writer living in Greenup County.


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