I have been meaning to write this blog post for a while now, but until recently I did not feel I had a full grasp as to what exactly I was going to try to say, nor did I have the necessary vocabulary to get my thoughts across. I had a general idea in my head of what I wanted to talk about, but just didn't know how to accurately communicate the message. That is until I read "Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation" by Edward L. Deci.
The lesson I was taught as a kid which has had the greatest impact on me is one that I did not realize the importance of until I hit college and then the work force. This is not a lesson my mother taught me overnight; it took years to plant the seeds, and even longer before I came to realize why it has been one of the most important things she has taught me. Her lesson consisted of showing me the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
My parents don't believe in rewarding behavior with physical goods. They've never given my sister or I any money, toys, or anything else as a result of performing well in school. They also never punished us as a result of performing poorly. Now a lot of people I know don't believe that their approach was a sensible one, but I will try and explain here why it was the best thing they ever did to us.
I remember very clearly an instance in middle school when I came home one night, jubilant that I had gotten the best grade in an exam for our Physical Sciences class. I ran to my dad, showed him the paper and told him that this had been the toughest exam I had ever taken, and that I had outperformed everyone else in my class. He was happy to see I had done so well, hugged me, congratulated me, and told me to keep it up. I then ran to my mother, test in my hand, and shared the news with her. She too was extremely pleased with my performance and praised me with kind words and congratulatory remarks.
Despite having gotten a good grade, I remember feeling disappointed by my parent's reaction. I was expecting them to be far more vocal, and perhaps even to have given me a prize for my stellar performance! Maybe be allowed to stay up late to watch a movie, maybe they would buy me a new game, maybe even receive some money. But no, none of that.
And that night, I went to my room and felt angry at how unfair my parents were. A lot of my friends would get video games or money when they got anything above average. Yet here I was, #1 in the class, and nothing to show for it...
Having noticed my discontentment, my mom came into my room that same night and had a talk with me. That evening she told me that she didn't believe in giving prizes to people for doing things that they should be doing regardless. She said that I shouldn't be getting good grades just to impress my dad and her; that the real reason I should be happy to get the result I did on that test was to confirm to myself that I fully understood the concepts that were being tested in the exam; that the grade should by itself be enough for me to feel happy with my performance, not the expectation of being praised or rewarded for doing so.
Likewise, she said that had I performed poorly in the exam, getting the lowest grade in the class, she was not going to punish me for it. She would try and understand why I got the lowest grade, but she would not ground me, restrict me from watching television, or anything of the sort. If I performed poorly, the grade alone and my feeling of unhappiness should be enough of a push to get me to do better the next time. Now that doesn't mean that she would be ok with me getting the lowest grade, not by any means, but that she just wasn't going to punish me for doing so.
And even though it took a while for me to fully come to terms with her methods of rewarding (or lack thereof), it has truly taught me that my drive to do something shouldn't hinge on expecting any sort of reward or praise from anyone once I complete the task, that the feeling of satisfaction for performing well / completing a task should be enough to feel truly accomplished.
What my mother was trying to do all this time was to have me value intrinsic motivators much more than the extrinsic ones. She knew that once I went to college, there wouldn't be anyone there to constantly congratulate or reward me on my achievements. Had I depended on that kind of reward mechanism to perform well, then as soon as I moved out of the house my motivation to perform well in school would have significantly dropped.
And this is one of the points that Edward L. Deci tries to make in his book. He and coworkers performed a whole series of experiments trying to figure out the positive and negative effects certain behaviors had on people's motivation level. He found, for example, that when students were given a set of puzzles to solve, things such as monetary rewards, fear of failure, or competition all caused the students to perform better in the short run, but as soon as those stimuli were removed, the students were no longer interested in having anything to do with the puzzle. Although the performance did momentarily increase, it caused the person's motivation to shift from being intrinsic (performing the action because they enjoyed the activity itself) to extrinsic (doing something for the purpose of obtaining a reward).
There is a lot more I could say about the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, how people react to various reward mechanisms, and discuss some of the details of the experiments that were described in the book, but that would take away from the point of this post. My main point here is to explain that it took me years to realize what really, truly motivated me in school and at work, what really drove me to study, work hard, do side projects, etc. When I start a new project, I typically don't do it for the sake of impressing someone, getting praised for the work, or for trying to be noticed; I do it because I feel euphoric when I learn something new, achieve something I hadn't done before, get out of my comfort zone, etc.
I understand that this post touches upon different styles and approaches that parents might take towards raising their children. My point in this post is not to say that one style of parenting is better than the other, my point is to say that parents need to be extremely aware of how different teaching styles can affect their children.
In "Why We Do What We Do", the author tries to demonstrate that those who are able to adopt a more autonomy supportive style of teaching are typically able to foster a student's intrinsic motivation far more so than someone that employs a slightly more controlling teaching style. Now, careful, being autonomy supportive does not mean that the student/child gets to decide everything and do what he/she wants, that would just be careless parenting.