Every day we see adults going to work in jobs where often the only motivation is that they get paid. Kids too have the equivalent of jobs, either school, gym, music or another activity; that is their version of a “job”. And it’s not a paycheck that motivates them to do it. What is it that motivates children in their job? I’ll tell you: kids want to make us happy.
I have been coaching and teaching for over 30 years now and one thing I can say that is a constant for kids is that they look to please the adults in their lives. A coaches or parents appreciation is a validation for children and to get it they will often be willing to put in the extra hours on the job. You may disagree with them seeking our approval. Sometimes our kids may not put away their laundry or bring their bike into the garage but that is typical. However it’s not the mundane daily tasks where they seek to please, it’s in performances and the extra activities where they want to shine. As adults we too seek validation from our peers, but in its absence we may tell ourselves that it wasn’t that important anyway. We identify our happiness more from within, not totally, but substantially more than a child.
There are parents and adults out there that actually believe in the “pay” system. I hear parents all the time say “if you finish class, we’ll go to McDonalds” (C’mon, there has to be a better reward than that!) or offer a snack from the machine. Some even offer literal “payment” for grades, or scores at a meet. I believe that it trivializes the accomplishment, but it is certainly is effective in making the kids happy for awhile. I would say that the parent has to understand that the true motivation was to get you, the parent, to notice that they did well. If the parent/adult understands this and reinforces it with approval then the relationship with their child can be exponentially strengthened. These are also opportunities for life lessons as well. When my son won a medal for being in our gym’s Spring Show our conversation went something like this:
Me: Owen I’m so proud of you, you really have gotten so strong. And I like the fact that you did a good job of listening to Coach Jason during the show (He did OK, but I wanted to reinforce the idea of behavior for future repetition).
Owen: I got a medal Dad! Did you see this?
Me: Yeah, that’s awesome, but you didn’t do all that just for the medal did you? I mean it’s great, and you should show it off, but I am just so proud of you being so good. I really liked the way you…..( I detailed a few items he excels and he smiled the whole time).
As a grown up, what kind of feedback would you like from someone whose opinion means a lot to you? Sure we would like our bosses to come across with more cash, but that’s not always what we “need”. A well placed “Hey I noticed that you did a good job” can serve better than a dollar bill and serve longer. We know that pay adjustments are great, they make us happy until the next check comes, then it’s all the same. We operate the same as before because the tangible payoff was a temporary satisfaction. But if your boss told you every few days how valuable you are or how great you’re doing (and a raise), you would come to work the next day with renewed energy and refreshed, you would be ready to prove again, that you are exactly what the boss said you were.
Remember that our children are looking for us to approve of them. Approve of their grades, their musical ability, their gymnastics, their artwork, and their efforts in general on whatever it is that they choose to pursue. Our feedback needs to be positive and immediate. If they bring up their mistakes then we need to listen and be sure that we don’t jump on the pity bus, “yeah maybe, but I really liked….(details here)” Reinforce the important lesson too; persistence, effort, discipline, integrity and the character that is important. It’s not the medal, or the score, it’s not being the star of the meet or game; it’s being your star. This is also a good time to help a child understand goals and goal setting: maybe help them think through their plan to make their play or efforts more productive, being careful not to assume the role of the coach. (parents usurping the coach is a whole other blog post). It’s critical that everyone knows their role in these matters. Coaches should coach and parents should parent. One of the best parts about an activity like what Gymfinity offers is that it’s such an opportunity for the parent/child relationship to be strengthened, if you let it be. Remember that it’s not the rank, the score or the medal it’s the smile.