Podcast #15: 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.


Podcast #15: How to Stop Stealing a Kid’s Ambition