I'll Be Watching You

    Every move you make, Ben. Every. Move. You. Make.

    Every move you make, Ben. Every. Move. You. Make.

Dear Jess, 

Thank you so much for coming out and speaking with our children and parents. I loved your talk-it was funny and meaningful all at the same time-I also loved your book, so thank you. 

I’m writing to ask a question about something you brought up to the kids and us, but it wasn’t really in the book. It was brought up about extrinsic motivators; which I understand to be bribes, money for grades, etc, but I don’t understand how checking their emails, phones, text, tracking were brought up negatively in that same discussion? And of course that’s one thing my son took away from your talk. I just don’t understand how those things are extrinsic motivators, it you could elaborate I would truly appreciate it.




A great question, one that’s answered in a couple of places sprinkled throughout The Gift of Failure (pp. 30-32, 160, 236-7 for a few references), but here’s a refresher course:

Extrinsic motivators can take many forms. They can be the ones we perceive as positives, like bribes and rewards. Money, ice cream, stickers, any kind of “if you do this, I will give you that” motivators. They can also be perceived as negatives, like surveillance, grounding, the “unless you do this, I will impose that” motivators. 

The specific extrinsic motivators you asked about—checking texts, emails, monitoring where kids are all the time via an app, checking grades on a portal—these are all extrinsic motivators. They are attempts to shape behavior by checking up on kids. As I mentioned at the talk, extrinsic motivators may work for a little while, they may work for tasks that require short-term focus on a simple task, but for tasks or endeavors that require long-term focus, prioritizing goals, creativity, and more complex management of executive functions such as time management, they undermine motivation. 

Think of it this way. Imagine you have worked for one boss for years, and she or he trusts you. You have control of how you do your job, when you complete certain tasks, and how, because the boss trusts that you are competent and will get things done. Your work is YOUR work. Then, you get a new boss. The new boss seems nice enough, and seems to have best interests of the organization in mind, but her first request is that you pass all work by her before hitting send  or closing the task. She trusts you, she says, she just wants to make sure you are doing your job well. 

Now, do you feel trusted? Do you feel motivated the same way you did under the old boss? I know I would not. I would feel resentful, as if I’m not trusted, and frankly, a bit disrespected. 

When we check up on kids constantly by reading their emails, checking their texts, logging in to check that they are doing their homework on time, we expect them to screw things up. We may SAY we trust them, that we are “just checking” for our own peace of mind, so we can sleep at night, so we can make sure they are not starting down the wrong road...we say all these things, but what they hear is, "I don't trust you." 

Older kids (and I’m assuming your kid is older as he has a phone) are going through a process of separating themselves from their parents, becoming their own people and shaping who they will be apart from us. In order to do that, they need a certain amount of autonomy, room to stretch, take risks, try things out, and grow. There’s research that reveals kids who are more controlled by their parents lie to their parents more. If we don't give them that room, they will create it, even through deceit. 

Now, every parent is different, and for some parents of some kids, it might be appropriate to check emails here and there or keep an eye on texts or peek into social media feeds. I get that. However, just because the technology exists, just because we can monitor their movement, purchases, words, grades, and distance from home does not mean we have to do it. 

Be judicious. For most kids, trust begets trustworthy behavior. Even my students, who are drug and alcohol addicted kids, some of whom have spent time in juvenile detention for serious crimes, respond to the words, “I trust you” positively, and by elevating their behavior to be worthy of that trust. Not all, but most. 

When I’m asked in interviews how I was parented, assuming that the way I was treated by my parents when I was growing up has some bearing on how I parent now, I always say, “They trusted me to make good decisions.” That was such a gift, one I worked hard to live up to and deserve.

I hope I have answered your question, and again, I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to get to your question! Thanks for attending my talk, and my best to your son!