Anyone who needs to influence the thinking, attitudes or behaviors of another, is a leader. Parents constitute the biggest, and probably the most important, group of leaders that there is. The potential knock-on-effect, good or bad, of the way parents bring up their children is staggering. Sadly, many of us have delegated our children's upbringing to schools, religious institutions or the media. But this isn't delegation at all, it's abdication: for as much as these and other organizations can and do influence children, no one can substitute the leadership, character development and values transference that a parent can exercise.
So let's take a look at some of the things we've been writing about with respect to leadership, and see how they apply to parenting. For example, in Motivation versus Inspiration Part I and Part II, I wrote about the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and how important both of them are to inspiring people to greatness. How does this apply to inspiring our own children?
Samantha Cleaver writes in Too Much of a Good Thing:
We've taught our children since birth to believe they can do anything they choose.... All that self-confidence, however, hasn't produced more capable students...
Ask Korean eighth graders, "Are you good at math" and chances are they'll say they aren't. Ask an American, and you'll likely get an enthusiastic response. In a recent study, only six percent of Korean eighth graders considered themselves excellent math students, compared with 39 percent of American eighth graders. Yet the Korean students scored far better in math than their American peers.
Are we trying to motivate students too extrinsically? Are the Korean students Samantha refers to more intrinsically motivated?
I suggest the issue is not how much of each motivational method we instill in our children, but rather the relative balance between both. American schools generally provide nothing but extrinsic motivation: grades, rewards, accolades, scholarships, impressive resumes etc. This surely gives kids an exaggerated sense of their own abilities and magnifies their sense of entitlement in the ways they interact with the world. Having told them all year how brilliant they are, how can we give them a score of anything less than an "A" at the end of the year? When children value grades more than wisdom and will not do volunteer work unless it reflects on their resumes and translates into some form of cashable reward, then we have lost the plot of raising children.
The solution is not the 'Korean' response either. But the artful ability of teacher and parent to balance extrinsic with intrinsic motivation. We need to learn the skill of building our children's inner drive to accomplish and contribute to the wellbeing of others, and see extrinsic reward and recognition as the outcomes of these achievements, not as their drivers.
There are a few things that can help achieve this balance:
- Nothing teaches as effectively as role-modeling: I have been humbled by how many business leaders I have met in my workshops who make a point of taking their children to work on charitable projects that entail no reward or recognition, and make the process and the outcome fun and celebratory. Some of them have built houses or furniture for poor people, others have adopted parentless children or engaged in other amazing projects for no reward or recognition.
- Try to address the "why?" of everything you ask your child to do. The "why?" should link the activity to a higher value rather than to an expedient outcome. The "why?" of going to college and getting a degree could be "to enable yourself to make a more worthwhile contribution to others later on;" rather than, "becasue college graduates earn better salaries".
- Often express admiration for the heroic actions of others. Highlight them in news reports, read about them to the family at m,eal times, encourage your children to read biographies of great people, and discuss these works with them.
Doing things like this complements the extrinsic rewards we give children. The rewards, rather than being the key motivators, reinforce for them the value of what they do.