The Secret of Effective Motivation, a recent article in the New York Times by Professors Amy Wrzesniewski (Yale School of Management) and Barry Schwartz (Swarthmore College), teaches me something I know, but don't always want to believe: sharing my ideas about why my daughter should do something she is already doing actually diminishes her chances of success.
Professors Wrzesniewski and Schwartz studied how student motivation relates to later success by studying motivations of nine classes of incoming West Point Cadets against their later accomplishments. For their study, motivations are either internal or instrumental. Internal motivation is the kind of motivation that comes just because you want to do "it," whatever "it" is. Instrumental motivation is the kind that is based on a reward for doing "it," whatever "it" is. The slide show below provides some examples of internal and instrumental motivations for some "its."
Unsurprisingly, students with strong internal motivations were the most successful group. A bit more surprisingly, students with weak internal motivations but strong instrumental motivations also did quite well. Almost shockingly, students with BOTH strong internal and instrumental motivations fared the worst, being the least likely to graduate, the least outstanding as military officers, and the least committed to staying in the military.
Now let's think about how this affects how we work to support our children as students and college applicants. As close as we might be to our children, any motivation that we provide is instrumental. Internal motivation can only come from our children themselves.
This means that before we "generously" hand out encouragement and advice, we need to really consider how our children feel about "it." If they have already formed a strong commitment to "it," the last thing they need is for us to throw in "one more good reason." If they seem to enjoy something but not particularly committed to pursuing "it," and they are in need of finding more "its" in their lives, they may need us to help them evaluate whether "it" might be interesting to pursue to see where "it" leads.
For someone like me who tends to "think out loud," I need to restrain myself when thinking about all the wonderful places that my daughter's interests may lead. She needs to develop her own reasons to pursue her interests, and my reasons may cause her to lose confidence on whose interest she is pursuing. But for those times when she might be afraid to pursue an interest, I should encourage her to consider it further until she finds her own motivation or she determines she has had enough.
I know I won't always get it right. Sometimes I will speak when I should not; other times I will fail to speak when I should. When these times happen, we will still be fine, because she also knows that I love her regardless of where her educational and professional path lead. But I am glad to understand why my "helpful suggestions" can sometimes cause heartache: sometimes my help is truly not needed.
Shepherding our children to adulthood demands our love, our attention, and our acceptance of who they are.