Sense of control, self-efficacy and motivations: three ways to shape the kids

Again a post post school assignment. School makes me think, I guess it’s a good thing.

One of the mandatory papers for my Social Psychology class had us ponder on ways to motivate a young girl to pursue sport, as we know how many of them stop practicing sports and start questioning their physical capacities at the dawn of their teenage years.

Environmental factors and behavioural modeling during childhood and teenage-hood are so important in designing the adults we are, I think most of us don’t doubt this anymore. Not the only thing that has an impact of course: genetics is too, but let’s face it, once you are born, or your child, you can’t do much about that anymore. The only thing you can work on is, well, what you can work on. The idea was to advise a parent whose young daughter loves sports, but the parent is afraid she will “follow the trend” and give up on sport or physical activity. I liked this idea, I find that we focus so much on media and advertisement, that we often forget what we can do on a day to day basis.

Being the best that we can be, and therefore the best model, is the first thing on the list of what we should do, of course. I get that this is still relative, but if we think about it and think about our actions, I think most of us we’ll end up with similar conclusions and paths. Some kind of universal human value scheme. Practically, how you behave with the children around you will shape the way they perceive themselves, the world, and who they will become. Here, I just wanted to share a couple of ideas that came up while I was writing the paper, how we can improve in my communication with children as a whole, and help them be better prepared adults. Comments and criticism are always welcome.

Have you ever been in that position where a child has done something, and you praise them, but then you think is it good to praise the child for no reason, and then you praise the effort, and then you wonder if the child will think you only do this because he or she did well, or that your love is conditional, so then you say that whatever he or she will do, you’ll be happy, and then you feel like a moron because you know you’ve left the child with so many subliminal message he or she has no idea what was good or not, and whatever? It happens to me all the time, with my nieces. I think now they just think I am cognitively challenged.

That paper we had to write made me feel the same way when thinking about what we can, and it’s a feeling I get with Psychology as a whole: everything and its contrary might be true, or not, and in the end it’s the behaviour that confirms, or not, what was true, or not, to begin with. Not to sell the conclusion right away, but in the end, it sort of depends. Nevertheless, I could summarise my ideas into three great ideas (not as in magnificent, but as in umbrella ideas), and I think they apply for the subject at hand (involvement into sports) but also to build some sort of safety net for all we seem afraid will happen later on.

The first thing seemed to be a healthy sense of control: helplessness has been demonstrated to induce anxiety and depression, issues with control over one’s life (not to be mistaken with control issues in the vernacular sense) can influence the onset of anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorders and eating disorders. Learned helplessness is when we learn or believe that no matter what we do, we can’t have any control over our lives. The expression was coined by Martin Seligman, a famous American psychologist. A lot of experiments have been done with children to help us understand how they react to cues and how they can develop a better, and healthy, sense of control. What we mean by healthy i this instance can be summarised by this AA moto:

It was hard finding one without the God… So back to the experiments! I’ll refer here to one conducted by Carol Dweck, on praising children for their effort or performance, and which ones developed more determination and perseverance:

So as we can see, children praised for their effort seemed to do better in the long run. But wait… It’s a trap! Just kidding, almost. Carol Dweck was not super happy with what followed these experiments, and how people suddenly thought that praising every effort was a good idea! She wrote several articles and books on the importance of growth in helping children, and focusing on the process and the strategy and not just on “trying” or the “end result”. Some sort of middle ground. So the idea is to instill the belief, this certainty to the child, that they can improve, that they have a control over that in some way, and that they have the ability, with the help of others, to find strategies that will help them improve. The whole idea behind the growth mindset of Ms. Dweck.

The second idea is self-efficacy, or a belief in your own competence. Not only should you learn that you can grow and improve, but you also must believe that you can and that you are able. As human beings can be a little dumb dumb, we can easily trick our mind in that area: studies have shown that our sense of competence in one area can have positive impact on how we perceive ourselves in other areas as well and that intrinsic motivations towards knowledge, accomplishments etc. are highly correlated. The strategy then would be to help children make their own choices and instill a sense of responsibility regarding their participation in activities, including school and house chores. Easier said then done I would guess, but it starts with the little things. At work, we value reciprocity when intervening with our clients: we encourage families, including children, to reciprocate and participate in our organisation’s activities and duties. Last summer, we asked one family to help out with the plants inside and on the balcony (water them mostly) and the 4 year old kid decided that he would be in charge of that. We showed him where the watering can was and he was good to go. We had to remind him every week he came to the office, but you know, 4 years old… I guess this is how it starts.

However, planning a week of chores in exchange for pocket money is not how it starts…

And on my final topic for this… rambling… intrinsic motivations. How many times have I heard that I needed to want to do something, and yet the same people who said those things were forcing me to do something. Life is full of contradictions. But in the case of children, it seems important to carefully not create a whole set up of external motivations that will just silence or cancel out internal ones. Read this little story:

There was an old man who looked forward to his daily afternoon nap. But a problem arose. The neighbourhood children decided that the street in front of his house was the perfect place for their afternoon football game. They yelled, shrieked, & played noisily. The old man couldn’t get a wink of sleep.
So he decided to convince the children to stop playing football in front of his house. He considered waving a broom to scare the children, but thought better of it. He needed a superlative plan.The following day, he brought a chair with his newspaper to the curb, to watch the children play. He watched attentively & cheered the good plays. The children noticed but ignored him. At the end of the game, the old man handed each child $5. The children were as puzzled as they were happy.
“What’s this for?” they asked.
“I’m retired & bored” replied the old man. “Your football game is something I enjoy. This $5 reward is a way for me to say thank you, & to ensure that you play here every day. Just play great football!”
The children ecstatically yelled “Sure!” & showed up the next afternoon ready to play a great game. They did, but the old man missed many of the good plays as he was buried in his newspaper. At one point the children scored a spectacular goal which the old man missed because he had seemingly dozed off. At the end of the game the children gathered around & asked the old man, “How was that?”
The old man responded “Well, that was a good game. Not as great as yesterday though. Here’s $2 each.”
The children protested. “We played a great game! Better than yesterday!”
The old man responded nonchalantly, “I just didn’t see it that way.”
The children took the money, grumbling, & showed up the next day, determined to play a fantastic game.Initially they played well, but teamwork started to break down, as several of the children were determined to impress the old man by making plays on their own. As the game progressed, play got worse & worse. The children argued amongst themselves & increasingly focused on individualistic play. Whenever a good play was made, the old man always seemed to be buried in his newspaper. But he always managed to catch & comment on the poor play. At the end of the game, the children shuffled over to where the old man was sitting with their heads hung low.
“That was terrible football. If you’re going to play like that in future, play somewhere else!” the old man howled at them. He shoved his hand in his pocket & scattered small change on the street in front of the children & stormed away.
Upset & forlorn, the children vowed never to play football anywhere near that old man again.
And they never did.

Never mind how creepy this story sounds, it illustrates how the human mind works beautifully. What the story doesn’t explicit enough, is the fact that the reward was expected, which means that in the end the expected reward became the reason for the behaviour, even though the kids liked paying their game to begin with. What if the reward is unexpected? Well, it doesn’t affect people’s motivation in this case, because the reason for the behaviour can’t be an unexpected reward.

Then again, people are people, and our kids will be our kids. Who are we to say that the reason why they want or don’t want to so this or that is… well this or that? How many times have I seen people tell me that I didn’t like doing something because I was too shy, or to this, and that I should just apply myself. And now at 35, I know that I’m not shy, I just don’t like people. We all do our best, and we shouldn’t fret too much about every word we say: everything we do will have an impact, there’s no way to avoid it.