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Podcast #16: How to Stop Stealing a Kid’s Ambition

I recently wrote the blog, “How Adults Are Stealing Ambition From Kids”. Today, I want to expand on that article and talk about a variety of ways that we, as adults are rewarding our kids through prizes, and the negative consequences that result from our actions.

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My son, Jonathan was recently at a competition in a local theatre arts program. As he talked through the stories about what went on at the competition, he laughed as he discussed the awards ceremony. First off, every participant from age 8-26 years old received an award just for showing up. If that’s not bad enough, there were gold, high gold, and platinum tiers of awards that were distributed in a two-hour long awards ceremony. Meaning that gold was the lowest level of recognition. On top of all of that, if a kid did not receive the award he or she wanted, there were awards and trophies available for purchase in the lobby following the ceremony. Interesting.

It is apparent that we have developed a culture of consumerism. We want a return on investment for our kids’ efforts. By rewarding our kids with trophies and prizes, we are stealing their ambition to get up and try. While we may think that rewards help to build self-esteem, it actually leads to narcissism. Self-esteem is formed by identifying our gifts, using them for significance, and learning from their impact.

Incentive is one of the most important factors of child behavior. In fact our nation is built on incentive. Take the pioneers: They came to America for a better life, better opportunity. They received land as their incentive, to then cultivate ambition which leads to achievement. We became very great, very fast as a country. However, now we have become a country where we have removed incentive. Are we, kids and adults, now limiting our ambition?

What are examples of what may incentivize kids?

  • First Job (money): “I’m exchanging my time/effort in exchange for a paycheck. I earned it.”
  • Sports: Reaching home plate or scoring a basket is a tangible score to earn.
  • Scholarship: By earning a grade in school, that could lead to an academic achievement.
  • Relationship: Sometimes an attractive girl/guy was the reason to shower and look nice for a class that day.

There are always exceptions, but there is an increasing percentage of kids today who have lacked ambition as we, adults haven’t cultivated it. Kids are growing up with the unspoken notion that if they fail, an adult will swoop in and save the day.

Author Dan Pink, shared in his book called Drive, an experiment involving a group of preschool-age students. The results demonstrated how a reward, often puts the focus solely on the prize, and not on the process or the enjoyment in the actual activity. It’s important for a child to have satisfaction in just playing ball, or doing well on a math equation. This experiment illustrates how ambition and incentive are so influential in a child’s behavior.

I would summarize ambition by going back to the intrinsic factors that we need to recover in students:

  1. Autonomy and Independence: Every human being should have a growing sense of “I’m able to do this on my own.”
  2. Mastery: It’s important to help students find their primary gifts and strengths, and master them. “I am mastering this work. I do something better than the average guy.”
  3. Purpose and Mission: Inside of every human being, is a desire to follow their passion. “I’m doing something that really matters.”

How can you build autonomy, mastery, and purpose in your kids?

Next podcast, we’re going to share six tangible ideas to help you build incentive and ambition in your kids. One of our resources, Artificial Maturity, is a great resource to help you raise your kids to be authentic adults.

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  • Moni

    It’s interesting how you say that children lack motivation because adults have not cultivated it. When my little sister was about three years old, she was at a stage where she wanted to do everything herself. One afternoon, she was practically climbing up into the fridge to get the milk, though I was standing right there and could have easily grabbed it for her. I laughed at her seemingly needles attempt at independence until a friend reminded me that children must do things on their own and gain confidence by testing their abilities. I now realize how true that statement was. That same sister is now seven years old and has become used to asking my mom and other little siblings to do things for her. She now has to be pushed and prodded to do simple things independently; those attempts to convince her often lead to bribing or her expecting a reward for everything she does. Just observing a small part of her life showed me a lot about how kids can be shaped by low expectations that lead to a lack of personal accomplishment.

    • Wow, what a great example! Thanks for sharing Moni, I am glad you have seen firsthand how low expectations and rewards can lead to a lack of personal responsibility and accomplishment. I am confident you will lead kids to think differently.

  • Jehú Barranco

    So now how do we fix this problem? As we are having kids coming through our classrooms, how do we change their focus from the prize (grades, stickers, etc.) and back to the process? How do we introduce incentive and ambition back into out students? How can me “cultivate” these virtues in our students when the culture around it making it so easy for them to just slide by?

    • I believe we need to have more conversations with our students and kids. Walk them through various failures that we’ve experienced, encourage them to make the effort even if they don’t succeed, help them set goals that may or may not be attainable, and most importantly love and believe in them. In our upcoming podcast, I will be talking about solutions to fix this problem, so check back for more ideas then.

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