Self-Motivation and External Consequences

Unlike most of my parenting posts, this one is going to be high on theory and low on anecdotes. This discussion—which focuses on what it means that an adult or child “has to” do this or that—was prompted by reader Rebecca Horne in the comments section of my post on how I teach my daughter that “sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.” I want to start by saying that I don’t have all of the answers, and that this is more of a thinking post than something that is fully settled in my mind. I’ll open the floor to discussion at the end of the post. Let me start by quoting Rebecca’s original comment:

So, I’ll start by saying that I don’t have my thoughts in order about this, so this isn’t meant to be critical, or an argument against anything you’ve said.

What really bugs me about “Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to,” and treating that as a skill you need to learn for adult-hood is that…adults so rarely do it.

When an adult struggles with something like not wanting to get up, and then does it anyway and goes to work, they’re still freely making the choice to go to work. They have the option not to, and they’re choosing not to exercise it because they enjoy their job, or they value their job, or they recognize that they have bills they have to pay, or they value the concept of loyalty and respecting your commitments, or they have some other reason. They don’t want to go to work, but they simultaneously *do* want other things, that are fulfilled by going to work. This isn’t “having to do what you don’t want.” This is prioritizing your various wants and choosing which is most important in the moment.

That seems like an abstract, semantic argument, except that being a child isn’t like that.

When the child is told, “you have to do things you don’t want,” “have to” is literal. They will be forced if they don’t do it freely. And “you don’t want” might also be very literal—if we’re talking about school, for example, it’s entirely possible that they had no choice in whether or not to go to their school; that they don’t, personally, value the things that schools teach; and that they don’t understand or value the benefits that (might) come 15 or 20 years down the line. It’s much more likely, in the case of a child, that they are being forced on every level to do things that they have absolutely no interest in and have had no say in choosing. And given how often it *is* school that they’re being forced to participate in, this dynamic might be the central focus of their entire childhood.

The only situation I can think of where an adult’s experience is comparable is if they are a prison inmate.

Like I said, I don’t have my thoughts fully in order about this—it’s more of an observation than a solid point, but I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind.

Rebecca makes a very good point—when we adults talk about things we “have to” do but don’t want to do, we’re generally talking about things we do voluntarily, without someone standing over us forcing us to do them. This is part of being an adult. We go to work, we clean our homes and do our laundry, we pay our taxes. Ultimately, our goal is to get our children here—to a point where they voluntarily choose to do these things, as citizens and adult members of society.

I do think, though, that it’s worth questioning whether these things are always as voluntary as we might like to think. I don’t know what happens if you don’t pay your taxes, but I’m pretty sure it’s bad. If you don’t show up for jury duty, you can go to jail. If you decide to just not get out of bed, you won’t simply lose your job but will eventually be evicted, by force if necessary. If you don’t work, you can’t buy food, and then you’ll starve. If you don’t pay a parking ticket, I’m pretty sure bad things will eventually happen too. Sure, we may voluntarily choose to do the things we “have to” do even though we don’t want to do them, we may weigh the pros and cons and prioritize our various wants, but it’s not as though there isn’t force lurking there somewhere.

I also think that I was not as clear as I should have about what I mean when I tell Sally “sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.” I don’t generally threaten any sort of physical force. In other words, “sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do” is not generally as literally as Rebecca took it. Instead, my goal is to encourage Sally to choose to do things she doesn’t want to do but really should do. I try to take this approach because I know that Sally will someday be an adult, and that I won’t be there to make sure she cleans up her messes or, well, files her taxes. I want to encourage her to be self motivated rather than motivated only by external forces.

Perhaps an example will help explain what I mean. If Sally has made a mess, I’ll call her and ask her to clean it up. If she says she doesn’t want to, I’ll tell her that sometimes she has to do things she doesn’t want to do—and that that is just a part of life, and that sometimes I have to do things I don’t want to do too. If Sally refuses to do it, I continue to encourage her to do it, explaining why cleaning up after yourself is important, etc. I may offer to help. But ultimately, I don’t physically force her to do it. I don’t even put her in a time out or punish her if she won’t do it. Instead I generally do it myself.

But just as in our adult lives there are consequences if we don’t do the things we’re supposed to do (i.e., you’ll be fired if you don’t complete tasks your boss assigns to you, you’ll get evicted if you don’t pay your rent, and the library will ultimately send your case to collections if you don’t pay a fine), there are also consequences for Sally. Can I pause here to say that I feel like other parents before me have completely ruined the entire application “consequences” when it comes to raising children? “There will be consequences!” the parent proclaims ominously. And there are—the child is sent to her bed, or is grounded, or has her allowance suspended. But wait! Those things aren’t consequences—those things are punishments. What I am talking about is different.

If Sally gets out a game and spreads it all across a public area and refuses to clean it up, even with encouragement, I may take it and put it up, explaining that if she can’t put her game away herself she isn’t responsible enough to have it where she can get it out herself. I remind her that she lives in a house with other people, and that the cleanliness of the common areas affects everyone. In other words, I make it clear that it’s not about being vindictive. It’s about being practical. Alternatively, I might later tell her I can’t do something she’s asking for because I’m tired out from cleaning up after her. Again, not about being vindictive. It really does get tired cleaning up after her.

And these “consequences”—I seriously need to find a new word for this concept, because that one has been completely corrupted—aren’t things I suddenly spring on her later. Rather, while encouraging her to clean up her game I tell her that if she can’t clean it up when she gets it out it may be a bit much for her, and that if I have to clean up her messes I have less energy for other things. Honestly, this is generally all it takes. Sally is a very earnest little girl, and she takes what I say seriously. There have been times she tells me she thinks a given game really is too much for her, and should be put up until she’s older. Other times she accepts me being more worn out later. Usually, though, she stops, thinks, and then forms a plan and puts it into action, cleaning up the game or finding a way to make a game of it.

I understand that using force to get a child to do the things they “have to” do is problematic, both in the short term and in the long term. This is part of the problem I have with spanking and other forms of authoritarian discipline—they purchase compliance through threats. What happens when the child grows up and the parental threats and force are removed? Is there any guarantee there will be self-motivation buried under layer upon layer of external motivation?

Now, related to this concept of “having to” do things you don’t want to do is that of not being able to do things you want to do. Money is a big one here, and this is a point where things become sticky for me. When Sally picks up a skateboard and asks to buy it and I tell her there isn’t money for that right now, I feel kind of dirty inside. There usually technically is money there that I could spend on that skateboard. It’s just money that should be spent on other things, or saved. When I explain that I can’t always buy everything I want either, and use the example of wanting an iPad but not having the money for it right now, I feel similarly dirty. Technically I could buy myself an iPad. But, I know that doing that would not be good for our finances right now. I choose not to buy an iPad, but when Sally doesn’t get to buy her skateboard, for her that’s not a choice.

I really need to start Sally on an allowance. Then she would be making the same sorts of decisions—yes, I could buy this skateboard, but then how much money would I have left? How much do I want it? This solution isn’t perfect, because it’s still an arbitrary amount of money she has at her disposal, but it at least puts the choice in her hands.

But now I want to turn back to the discussion on “having to” do things we don’t want to do, because there’s something intrinsic to children being involved that complicates it. I, as an adult, could choose not to ever bathe and simply deal with the natural consequences of the stink, if Sally, as a child, were to do that same thing I would ultimately be reported to CPS for neglect. I can’t legally let Sally choose to never wash herself. Similarly, as an adult, I could simply stop attending grad school if I so chose, and no one would stop me or charge me with anything (except any tuition still due). But if Sally, as a child, were to do the same thing next year, once she’s in kindergarten, I would ultimately get called in on truancy charges. There are something Sally really honestly does “have to” do or else she will be removed from me by social services, and this means that sometimes I may need to force Sally to do things she doesn’t want to do.

Ultimately, these forces begin to interact. When I get back from a shopping trip, I could choose to just sit in the car, indefinitely. I could stay there all night if I wanted, and it wouldn’t inconvenience anyone. But if Sally doesn’t want to get out of the car when we get home from the store, I’m faced with limited options. I can (a) leave her there in the car, alone in the marking lot, which isn’t either legal or safe; (b) stay with her by the car until she decides to get out, however long that may take, inconveniencing myself; (c) physically force her out of the car and carry her into the house; or (d) find a way to persuade her to come inside. There is no option where Sally can simply stay in the car however long she wants without inconveniencing anyone, as an adult could. (For the record, I generally tend to go with option (d), with a smattering of option (b), though I may have resorted to option (c) once or twice, if circumstances demanded.)

So why is this? Why do social services and truancy officers go after cases where children choose not to wash, or where children choose to stay in cars alone rather than going inside with their parents, or where children decide not to attend school? I think the answer is that the system is set up to get children to age 18 in one piece, and with a basic minimum education. In other words, children must be kept clean and safe and must be given a basic education, whether they want those things or not. We as a society have chosen age 18 as the point where children are suddenly considered responsible enough to be adults, and we as a society seek to protect them from the harmful affects of any “bad” choices they may make before they reach that point and attain that level of responsibility.

Is this necessarily the best way to go about things? I really can’t say. I do know that it is a construct, a set of assumptions, values, and rules that we as a society have created and maintained. I also know that it’s something that separates children from adults. We as a society seek to protect children from the negative consequences of choices they may make—such as a the choice to walk into a busy road, or to not attend medical examinations, or to skip school. In contrast, we don’t protect adults from the negative consequences of these choices. Instead, we generally assume that adults should be held responsible for these sorts of decisions, and should be allowed to suffer negative consequences that may arise from them.

I now feel like I’ve been rambling and I’m not even sure whether these thoughts translate. I do know one thing—I need to end this post before it gets any longer! What are your thoughts on these issues? How would you answer Rebecca’s questions, or respond to what I’ve said here?

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