By Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman
The rewards for self discipline go well beyond gold stars. We need to teach our children about both kinds of rewards; external and internal.
An external self discipline reward is one that is provided by someone else. For example, when a child uses self discipline to study for a test, the external reward might be a high grade. If a child disciplines herself to practice gymnastics, swimming, or martial arts, the reward might be a trophy, ribbon, or new belt rank. These rewards signify that other people noticed her gains.
An internal reward is one that manifests from inside. Only the child can muster up this reward. For example, when a child disciplines herself to work complete an art project, her internal reward might be a feeling of accomplishment, pride, or relief. When a child uses self discipline to prepare for auditions at her all-star cheerleading academy or for a belt test at her martial arts academy and she does well, her internal reward might be a feeling of value, achievement, or self worth.
We want to help children understand both types of rewards. Both can be motivating and they are often intertwined. A trophy or medal can be interlinked with feelings of pride and a high grade can be linked to feelings of accomplishment. But this is not always the case.
As the number of external rewards increases, the feelings of pride and accomplishment do not always increase. Be careful! Parents who give too many outside rewards such as toys, treats, or money, may find that their value decreases over time. Nothing can buy a feeling of pride.
Since your children look to you for a reaction—show them that you’re proud of their commitment, effort, perseverance, and determination rather than just the trophy, grade, or medal. Your recognition of the internal reward as well as the external reward will help your child to understand your values.
I remember talking to someone about this once and our discussion had to do with the following:
“Let’s say that a child usually runs a mile in say, 10 minutes. He enters a race. He’s determined. He practices. He runs the mile in his fastest time, 9 minutes and 30 seconds. And he comes in flat last and receives a certificate of participation. Are you proud? Disappointed? Now, the same child enters another race. He doesn’t practice and he’s not that determined. He doesn’t put in much effort. He runs the race in 11 minutes and 50 seconds. He comes in first place and wins the blue ribbon. Are you proud? Disappointed? Let’s put in a third scenario now—the same child enters a last race. He has his eye on the trophy. He trains and he’s determined. He believes that winning is the most important thing. He runs the race in 9 minutes flat. He wins the whole thing. What we come to find out is that he has switched his competitor’s running shoes with ones that are a size too big and he is taking performance enhancing drugs. Are you proud? Disappointed?
Are we teaching the child to simply be “the best” in comparison to others or to do “his best” no matter what the circumstances? Do we teach the child to continually improve his personal best through self discipline and perseverance, gage effort by looking to his neighbor, or go “for the gold” at all costs just because it’s shiny?
Don’t get me wrong–there is absolutely nothing wrong with earning an external reward through effort, perseverance, and self discipline. I kept many of my own gymnastics, swimming, diving, horseback-riding, dramatic, and academic awards until my mother told me to clear them out of her basement a year ago. Just make sure to highlight that the external is a symbol of your child’s positive character. Otherwise, the external reward often gets far too much attention.
That being said; help your child to recognize the internal reward that comes with achievement.
For example, instead of saying “good job on getting a high grade on that test,” (external reward) say, “You must be very proud of the effort you put in to prepare for your test. (Internal reward) Congratulations—it certainly paid off! How do you feel?” or “Congratulations on running your fastest mile! You really showed great perseverance when you kept going even though the other runners were in front of you. How does it feel to accomplish such a tough goal? What do you think that says about your character?”
Entering in on a dialogue that brings the internal reward to the forefront will help the child connect the good feelings to the effort—rather than to the external rewards– which will come and go and lose importance as time marches onward. We certainly don’t want children going after goals just so that they can collect trophies (in what ever form they might be) that will simply collect dust. Trophies are meaningless without the strength of character, pain of sacrifice, and pride of achievement that it took to accomplish the goal.
Ultimately, highlighting what it took to achieve the goal rather than the external reward will help your children recognize what it takes to be successful and they’ll want to do it again and again.
Have a Wonderful Finish to your February!
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