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Is An Achievement Mindset Hurting Our Kids?

The need to achieve — to succeed — is all around us.

At my two year old’s ballet class, one mother and son were watching through the window. The boy remarked, “That teacher isn’t letting her play. That isn’t very fun.” The mother responded, “Good. She needs to learn how to do it right so that she can move up to the next class” They were talking about a two year old. A two year old. How dare we let them have fun learning how to be a part of a group activity? We need to prepare our kids to achieve great heights at every single pirouette of the way, regardless of the consequences.

From the time that we learn to walk, the idea that achievement equates to self-worth is engrained into our psyche. We are showered with “good job”s, sticker charts, and rewards. We are praised for toileting and given an M&M. We are given trophies and incentives for winning. Achievement has become the bedrock of modern American parenting. And only a specific kind of achievement; winning and being “the best.”

“Look what my kid did!” turns into “Look what I did!”

But what if no one is looking? Praise and rewards are two-fold. People do things for the praise, rewards, and incentives. But remove those “benefits” and what does that leave you?

It leaves you with children that begin to lose the natural joy and curiosity that comes from taking risks. It steals the internal happiness and motivation that is required for taking initiative in reaching goals. And it starts attaching strings to any and all future activities; from creating artwork to pursuing a job.

Psychologists Mark R. Lepper and Dr. Greene, from Stanford and the University of Michigan, did a study on a group of preschoolers. They selected 50 kids that were interested in drawing.  Children in the group were randomly assigned to one of three different conditions: expect a reward, be surprised with a reward after the conclusion of the activity, and receive no reward. Not surprisingly, the children that were expecting a reward for their drawing drew less and less over the following days. Their drawings were also judged as less aesthetically pleasing. Once their desire to draw became motivated by an external reward, rather than an intrinsic motivation, they began to lose interest because their intentions for drawing had changed. The other two groups continued to enjoy drawing.

Children that live lives full of rewards and behavior manipulation rarely get a chance to develop the skills needed to pursue things just because they enjoy them. They are expected to pursue activities that might lead to a high-paying or prestigious job. This conditioning happens in well-meaning ways. Parents do want the best for their children, but they might not realize the message they are passing on to the next generation. In their efforts to set their kids up for success, they risk killing their passions by putting too much pressure on them.

Some common phrases that I hear constantly are:

“You are so smart! You got an A on your test!”

“This is the best painting I’ve ever seen!”

“You could go far with basketball. You scored the most points in that game!”

All of these put pressure on the child to achieve a masterpiece or the highest score every time they participate in the activity. Not all paintings will be a masterpiece.

Instead use phrases like:

“You studied really hard for that test. What do you think about the subject?”

“Tell me about your painting.”

“Did you have fun during your last game?”

The darker side of achievement-based messages are:

“You can’t be a writer. There’s no financial future in writing.”

“You don’t want to major in communications. That is a pointless degree.”

“You shouldn’t waste your time doing xyz. You need to be studying and constantly doing something that brings value.”

And by value they mean money.

What children are too often left with is a lack of motivation and low self-esteem. They become people-pleasers because they need the positive reinforcement of praise to feel that their work is valuable — that they are valuable. Achievement equals importance and power. At least that’s the message parents, teachers, neighbors, and friends send kids every day through their words and actions.

Pursuing Goals for the Sake of Personal Gain

“What’s in it for me” begins in those early years. We bribe our children to follow our rules. When the bribe isn’t worth it to them, they don’t do it. There is no internal motivation because parents have eliminated it through the use of rewards. When we are asked to complete an assignment in school that has no interest to us whatsoever, we complete it so that we don’t get a poor grade. Worksheet by worksheet, assignment by assignment, this slowly chips away at our curiosity and love of learning. We don’t learn at all. We just do the minimum needed to get the reward, the grade, the trophy, the money.

The Behaviorists were wrong.

Focusing solely on the behaviors of our children has one huge flaw; humans are not robots. They have real emotions that are critical to their development. Raising a child through rewards and punishments affects them for the rest of their lives. They will only do what gets the reward. And they will avoid what gets the punishment (or avoid getting caught). Thus, setting them up to base their value on their achievements. If they are “successful” people, they will be rewarded. If there are no rewards, they won’t give it a thought.

Does this sound like a terrible thing to you; being awarded and rewarded for achievements? It should.

As Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, says:

“What rewards and punishments do is induce compliance, and this they do very well indeed. If your objective is to get people to obey an order, to show up on time and do what they’re told, then bribing or threatening them may be sensible strategies. But if your objective is to get long-term quality in the workplace, to help students become careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to support children in developing good values, then rewards, like punishments, are absolutely useless. In fact, as we are beginning to see, they are worse than useless — they are actually counterproductive.”

Moving away from achievements.

Striving to achieve isn’t a bad thing. The motivation behind it is what matters. Many people are raised with rewards and grow up to be productive citizens of society. So why mess with a system that works? Well, “works” is a matter of opinion. I want my kids to grow up pursuing interests, regardless of what I think is a good interest or a waste-of-time interest. I want their motivation to come from within; chasing their dreams regardless of what anyone else thinks about it. Rewards and praising achievements might work in the short-term, but we are working on the long-game of parenting. If a child feels that they can’t reach the goals that are impressed on them by parents, they may not even try. A fear of failure is real, especially when your value and self-worth depends on that risk succeeding.

Breaking away from a societal norm is a monumental feat. But it is possible. The first step is doing your research. When we get pregnant, we research pregnancy. When we pursue an interest, we research that interest. Raising another human isn’t the time to wing it. Read parenting books that focus on the whole child. Support your child’s interests without praising how smart or creative they might be. Model behaviors that you want rather than trying to manipulate behaviors. And also take care of yourself. It’s much easier to support our children when we aren’t running on empty.

Children aren’t meant to be manipulated and controlled. Each one of us are unique; unique needs, emotions, and wants. Live the way you want your child to live. Children do what we do. Our voice becomes their inner voice. When we let our children focus on their interests without any external pressures (praise and rewards are pressure), they learn that taking risks is an exciting part of the learning journey. These risks can be the difference between a truly successful life and a life trying to live up to the expectations of others.

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