Have you ever experienced that moment with the child in your life when she comes into the room brimming with energy. Her voice is full of life. She is excited, passionate. She recounts with joy something she just did, learned, or experienced.
There is also another moment we have as parents. It is the time where what we believe is right for the child in our life seems to be in direct opposition to what he wants for himself. We just can’t genuinely share in his excitement because we just want something different for him.
We may be passionate about organic, local foods. We may be passionate about not buying plastic toys. And here he is, clearly telling us what he wants. He is passionate, excited and very clear about his desire or need. He wants that new plastic toy, bag of candy, or new video game.
As a parent with strong convictions, who read extensively during her pregnancy and is committed to creating broader social change, I found myself far too often in the second scenario. I was convinced I knew what the right things were for the child in my life. Somehow he just didn’t get with the program.
This strength of will in Martel, the oldest child in my life, challenged me to rethink everything I thought I knew about parenting. It also help me to grow beyond what I thought was possible.
What I learned as a parent, as a professional working with college students and in the research for my book, Parenting for Social Change: Transform Childhood, Transform the World, was that fostering and supporting internal motivation is what will allow the children in my life to find their passion and purpose. It is what will allow them to live in congruence with their inner values. This is true for all children.
Supporting internal motivation in children is directly connected to our ability to create space for children to remain connected to their inner authority and voice.
In a society and culture that acts upon the belief that we must use power and control over children, it can be difficult to support a child’s inner authority. Too often we describe a strong connection to inner authority as rebellion (in older children) or temper tantrums (in younger children).
Our culture, through our institutions, reinforces that the more powerful exercise control over the less powerful. When children experience this at home through overt or covert control and experience this at school, they begin to lose connection to their inner authority. This disconnection leads to external motivation. Children look outside of themselves for love, approval, and acceptance.
When they are young we may believe this is what should happen. Children should look to parents for approval. And yet, they grow into teenagers and we decry the ways in which they then substitute our authority and approval for that of their peers.
Ironically, it is our parenting and our schooling that pushes children to look outside of themselves. We create in children external motivation and then when they live according to this external motivation we can’t understand why they make choices based on what others (not us) want from them.
When children (and adults) are internally motivated they look inside of themselves for approval, not to teachers and grades. Children who are internally motivated to learn and explore the world don’t need others to tell them it’s time to learn. They do it because they love it.
In doing research for my book, I came across numerous studies that internal motivation was important to increased mental and emotional health, academic achievement and a greater ability to make decisions based on one’s internal values. Children that make decisions based on their internal values are also happier. Children will find their true passion and purpose when we support their on-going connection to their inner authority and voice. (1)
As parents, we need to challenge ourselves to rethink how we can support this process. It will look very different from what our society expects from us. We are told that parents should be in control and know what is best for children.
And yet, if what we want for the children in our lives is for them to experience a sense of purpose, a life worth living, a connectedness to what is around them, they can only do this from a deep knowing of who they are. Not from us telling them who they should be.
We need to step back from what we imagined for the children in our lives. Their purpose and passion may not be the same as ours. In fact, it is likely to be different. They are different people growing up in a different world.
If we can open ourselves to not knowing what is right for them, but allow them the room to grow and experience the world around them on their own terms, we can foster this connection to their purpose and passion. And they can live the lives they were meant to live, not the lives others expect from them.