Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Gold Stars

Maybe it's the teacher in me. The endless hours of college classes, new teacher trainings, and inservices. The parenting books and magazines I've devoured over the past eight years. Perhaps it is rooted in my own desire to figure out how to change myself and be a better person. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. I am obsessed with motivation. What motivates my students to learn something new? What motivates my children to behave? What motivates my husband to help with housework? What motivates me to stop procrastinating and get things done?
I've always been fascinated by internal motivation (I want to do this because there is a desire within me) versus external motivation (I want to do this because there is a shiny thing waiting for me) and the role they play in our journey to becoming happy and productive members of society. Many of my students would scoff at a challenge, asking, "What will you give me?" or "Will we be graded on this?" and I worry that the same thing may happen to my boys. It seems like every little action is rewarded these days, and I want them to learn that sometimes you do something simply because it makes you feel good. Click. Internal motivation.
But that doesn't always work. The truth is, we are way more motivated by external forces, especially when it comes to doing things that we don't like, or pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. Things that make us happy, that make us feel good, we do them. No problem. I love to read. Put a book in my hands and I will retreat to my favorite chair and read it. No rewards necessary. But take a student or child who hates books (gasp) or has difficulty reading, and external motivation may be required. At my son's school a local amusement park is offering a free ticket for any student who reads seven hours in two weeks. That's 30 minutes a day. For my child, who reads in the car, the bathroom, his bedroom, at breakfast (you get the idea) that is no problem. We log the minutes and collect the ticket. Easy peasy. But I can imagine in other households, where daily reading is a challenge, the dangling reward may be a strong external motivator. Is it wrong to use these types of motivators?
While reading is not a challenge in our family, there are definitely areas where my boys need an extra push. They are often described by their teachers as having "high-energy" which is the polite way to say they never. Stop. Moving. Or talking. Fine by me, really. My education background gave me a bag full of tricks to pull from when trying to reign in my rowdy children. P responded really well to time-outs as a toddler and learned quickly that no means no and Mommy really means it when she threatens to take something away if you don't pick it up. When he entered school, the negative consequences for poor choices started to pile up and he spent more and more time in punishment (especially in first grade). Then I started thinking about my many inservices and how positive reinforcement is really the only way to change behavior. Enter external motivation. This year P has the opportunity to earn weekday video game privileges (we have a no screen policy Monday-Thursday) for staying on task and getting a positive report at school, and I recently started up a similar program for our youngest. It isn't a perfect system. Slip ups happen. But overall things are getting better.
That brings me to adult motivation. How many of us set resolutions at the beginning of the year, or at some point when we feel like we JUST HAVE TO CHANGE? Change is hard. Yesterday I stumbled upon a home repair to-do list from our previous house stuffed into an old notebook. On the back was a chart of household chores, how often they needed to be done and who would do them. "How many times have we tried that?" I asked my husband. He laughed. "They never work," he said. He's right, they don't. I had to chuckle, pointing at yet another chart I recently made for myself and hung on our cluttered fridge. In my Christmas letter I emphatically promised to follow through with my resolutions and goals for the year. And so far, (pats self on back) I am doing well. My writing goals are straight forward and achievable. In both January and February I met my goals and promptly gave myself a gold star. Seeing the stickers and the little checked boxes makes me feel good. It seems to me that no matter how old we are, it feels good to be rewarded for something you've accomplished. My husband is right, there is no perfect chore chart. But the house looks better than it has and we haven't fought about who cleans what. He lives by the philosophy: if it annoys me, I'll clean it (his words) and I am just trying to make sure the house isn't swallowed up by cat hair, the bathrooms don't smell like pee and everyone has clean underwear.
At the end of the day, we will ultimately be accountable to ourselves. Are my boys behaving well in school simply because they like playing video games during the week, while some other kids are only reading because they want to ride the roller coasters for free this summer? Maybe. Am I only writing this blog entry to earn my gold star at the end of the month? Maybe. But if what you need is that little external push to get the wheels moving, does it really matter?

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