Are you turning your kid into a little robot?

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As parents, don’t we all share one dream?

To have little human robots who comply with every command we make. How proud we feel when we can show off to our friends how much our boy or girl loves us, and how well we have raised them. We use every opportunity that our kids eat whatever we give them, say whatever we ask them to say, and behave exactly the way we want them to.

To achieve such levels of obedience, most of us have discovered a very simple strategy that we implement as soon as we can: We offer our kids rewards whenever they comply with our wishes and impose punishments whenever our little ones misbehave.

Beautiful right?

But there is a small problem we may face a few years later:

In all likelihood, our kids could end up growing up into boring, uninspired and disengaged individuals who cannot pursue anything productive on a regular basis.

In a world that is demanding more creativity and personal input more than ever before, these are not the character traits that will bring our children very far. Robots have become replaceable with computers and machines, which is why everyone wants people who can think for themselves and master specific skill sets that are hard to replicate. And to achieve such mastery, our kids must be able to push themselves beyond their comfort zones.

WHY BRIBES DON’T WORK?

Why Bribes Don't Work?

Educating our little ones can require lots of patience and time, something we all lack. This is why we all love using shortcuts– and none work better than bribing our kids with rewards whenever they comply with our orders.

Especially we dads love to say things like:

Do your homework and then you can watch some TV.

Tidy up your room OR you won’t be allowed to meet friends.

Repeat this word after me and I will give you this delicious candy.

This kind of “if-then” propositions has a miraculous effect. After all, don’t we all love rewards?

However, something strange happens.

Our little kids who loved exploring the world suddenly lose that mix  of curiosity and courage that made them such incredible learners. Instead, many stop listening to us, suffer at school and lose any desire to do their homeworks.

Parents with kids who struggle with these symptoms often ask themselves:

Didn’t we educate our kids so well?

Where did things go wrong?

Why do rewards work any longer?

How else can we motivate them?

HERE IS THE PROBLEM:

Of course, we need to make our kids comply to us on a regular basis. After all, it is our responsibility to keep them safe from danger and teach them habits that will make them happy and well-behaved individuals. So we are obliged to impose some boundaries.

However, when we offer carrots and sticks something interesting happens. Like most “bribes’’, they only work in the short run. Eventually, they become ineffective and even counterproductive because we are also telling our kids something about the activity we want them to do.

Let me explain what I mean by using the principal-agent theory developed by economist Anton Suvorov:

When a parent (the “principal”) tries to get their kid ( the “agent”) to listen by offering a reward, they are actually signaling that the task is undesirable. Why else would we need to offer an extrinsic reward that is enticing enough to get them to act according to our wishes? Moreover, we are also ensuring that our kids will never do that same activity again for free. To the contrary, we will probably need to increase the incentive to ensure future compliance.

Psychologists Mark Lepper, David W. Green, and Robert Nisbet wanted to test the impact of rewards on kids and visited a group of kindergarteners who enjoyed drawing in their free time, and divided the class into three groups:

Group 1: These kids were offered a reward in return for drawing a picture.

Group 2: These kids would get a reward unexpectedly.

Group 3: These kids were not offered any reward for drawing.

Two weeks later, the researchers secretly visited the classroom again, while the teacher gave the kids some free time with the option to draw.

AND GUESS WHAT THEY FOUND?

Children who were in the second and third group drew just as much and with similar enthusiasm as before they did before the experiment. However, the kids who expected and received a reward from the researchers (group one), showed much less interest in drawing and also spent less time doing so.

In other words, preschoolers who drew for the sake of a reward lost interest in that activity. Suddenly play became work.

THE SECRET TO SUCCESS

Our kids need to endure hours and hours of study to maximize their chances later on in their adult lives. To excel at work, they will also have to be able to push themselves beyond their comfort zones with nerve wrecking challenges. In addition, they will have to overcome the many temptations this world has to offer so that they can experience lots of success and happiness in their lives.

All this requires tons of motivation, which is why we need to raise our kids in a manner that will keep them inspired and driven once they grow up.

BUT HOW CAN WE DO THIS?

Do you remember Tom Sawyer and a scene where he was ordered to whitewash a long fence? Tom really didn’t want to do it, so he had a plan: he would pretend the task was so fun that his friends would become jealous and would want to do it for him. In the end, they even paid him to have a turn at painting the fence for him.

Sounds crazy right why would anyone pay to paint a fence?

Twain explains a key motivational principle with such a simple example:

“There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”  Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

His point is that “fun” is one of the key forces that could incentivize us to do nearly anything.

AND INSTINCTIVELY YOU ALREADY KNOW THIS:

Think for example of classes you took to learn a new sport or how to play an instrument- even though it was hard work, you probably paid a teacher to help you get better.

Like kids, we have this internal drive to want to improve and get better at certain skills. By transforming work into play, our real reward becomes the activity itself. This is how we can find the motivation to endure the pain of pushing ourselves beyond our current limits- finding such motivation, is the real secret to success.

THE THREE INGREDIENTS OF MOTIVATION:

Carrots and Sticks may work to secure compliance for simple routine tasks that don’t require much thinking. We do a simple act and receive some form of compensation in return. But as dads, we seek much more than instant compliance– we want to teach our kids to think independently, strive to constantly improve, and develop the kind of persistence that will help them become successful individuals. This is why one of the greatest gifts we can give them is to trigger their hunger to learn as much as we can.

In his book Drive, the surprising truth about what motivates us Daniel H. Pink offers us three ways how this can be done:

Offer your kid Autonomy whenever possible: To feel motivated to complete a task, we must have some say as to when, how and with whom we complete a task. This is how kids and adults feel acknowledged and valued. Only then do we feel vested in a task somebody else requests us to do. For kids, this might mean being able to choose between two activities rather than being ordered what to do ( even in return for a reward).

Encourage your kid to seek Mastery: When we strive to improve at something for the sole sake of improving, we feel driven, as we are working for our own personal satisfaction. Kids do this all the time, and that makes them amazing learners. As mastery requires effort and hard work, it is important we make the process of learning as fun and playful as possible, rather than focusing on specific outcomes.

Reveal a Purpose every time you ask your kid to do something that requires hard work and effort: To help our kids feel totally inspired, we need to help them see the bigger picture of what we want them to do. This can mean understanding why they are learning a specific subject in school, and how this information could help them sometime in the future.

You might think that your toddler is too young for these suggestions. Let me share some of my favorite recommendations Pink gives us that I think will instantly help you offer your kids more autonomy, mastery, and purpose:

Once they are old enough, give your children an allowance and some chores- but don’t combine them: Pink explains that allowances teach kids to save money and become responsible with cash. Household chores show kids that families are built on mutual obligations and on helping each other. However, by combining the two, parents turn allowances into “if-then’’ rewards, meaning that in the absence of payment they will not be willing to do any of their duties at home, and hence eliminating any sense of autonomy. Therefore you want to separate the two.

Praise effort, not results: As Carol Dweck has shown in her research, children who are praised for attributes like smartness, good looks, and talent, feel they need to continuously prove themselves to maintain their reputation. As a result, they become scared to fail and less motivated to try out new and difficult tasks. By contrast, children who are praised for specific effort and hard work are willing to take on more difficult and new tasks as they enjoy the process of learning. This is how they start enjoying the process of striving for mastery. So when your boy or girl tries hard at accomplishing a task tell them: “I see you worked really hard to do this, well done. See how your efforts paid off?”.

Explain rather than dictate: Allow kids to understand why we are asking them to do something, or why they are learning a specific subject. The more our children appreciate the context of what they are doing, and see a bigger picture, the more motivated they will be to pursue that activity, experiencing a sense of purpose. So when for example  kids are learning something new, be sure to help them understand WHY they are learning the specific subject, and how it is relevant in the world they live in.

This is how we apply these ideas with our 18 months old toddler.

We praise him for his hard work and effort rather than for specific outcomes. So when he climbs up a slide with all is might in a playground, I sincerely compliment him for his hard work, regardless if he was able to reach the top.

We explain whatever we are doing and why: For example when I dress him, I explain to him what I am doing, and where we plan to go.

While our boy is too young to get allowances, we let him play close to us while we do our chores. Often, he will join and even try to copy us.

The key takeaway is that while it is easier to bribe our kids with rewards, we will experience more lasting benefits if we can motivate them to take action by themselves.

CALL TO ACTION

Now it is your turn: Share with me how to can motivate your kid to listen to you without offering a reward. How would you use autonomy, mastery, and purpose as triggers for motivation?

– Allon