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The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children

There are as many ways to raise children as there are grains of sand on the beach. Each child is an individual, and each situation is different. Despite these differences, we can apply what we’ve learned from psychology and neurology to inform our opinions about what our parents did right and what they did wrong – so we can make our choices about how we’re going to try to raise our children.

The practical implications of the challenges face parents every day. Should I say yes to that sweet request for some candy before dinner? Where’s the line between helping and enabling, and which side of the line does the act of bringing their forgotten homework to school fall? How does any parent navigate the difficult waters of supporting their children and giving them the right amount of struggle and consequences?

The answers aren’t easy, but there are paths towards less struggle and more success.

Participation Trophies

It’s painful to not win. It’s difficult to accept that we didn’t win. We didn’t get the slot or the trophy. It’s a natural extension, then, to want to – as both a parent and a leader of children – reward participation. After all, didn’t Woody Allen say that 80% of life is just showing up? Shouldn’t we reward that? According to the research, no.

If everyone is going to get a trophy in the end, then why should I even try? Intrinsic motivation is a powerful force for getting things done, but it’s too easy to disturb. By providing everyone with the same or similarly-valued reward, there’s no drive to perform well, to study and strive. It turns out, if we make the decision that everyone gets the same result, we destroy intrinsic motivation. (Learn more in Drive.)

Consider that communism failed not just because of corruption but because of the lack of drive resulting from removing the incentive to do better. If your performance doesn’t impact what you’re going to get, why try?

In raising our children, we should strive to show them results from their hard work – so they’ll want to do more hard work. We don’t want to reward just showing up when our children didn’t really put their all into it.

The Need for Struggle in the Animal Kingdom

It’s an act of kindness to help a chick out of its shell as it struggles to break free from the bonds that protected it for its first few days of life. After all, the shell is now holding back the chick from experiencing the broader world. There’s a problem with this act of kindness, however. In many cases, it dooms the chick to death. The reasons given for the “poor outcomes” (the convenient euphemism for death that is often used) are varied, from failure to allow the chick to properly separate from the egg, to not enough time to absorb nutritional materials, to not developing strong enough muscles. Whatever the cause, interfering with the process of the chick hatching has relatively universal poor outcomes.

Of course, chicks are not children. One might reason that nature made an exception, and it’s normally a good thing to help animals (and children) out of their struggles. The look into the reptile world doesn’t add much hope to this idea. Consider coming across sea turtles hatching on the beach. It seems tragic that the baby sea turtles struggle to find their way to the sea. Shouldn’t you help them? The simple answer is, again, no. Sea turtles have a sophisticated magnetic orientation system that needs to develop. Interfering with their process of getting to the sea as babies somehow disturbs the development of this system. (I’ve not found any coherent explanation of exactly why this is the case.) The result is that the “helped” sea turtles will end up dying as they swim in circles. Their location system doesn’t work, so they can’t figure out where they are – or how to get to where they need to be. (Whether you accept this story or not, stay well clear of sea turtles. They’re a protected species and you should not interfere with them, because the law says you shouldn’t.)

Struggle in Humans

I understand skepticism. I can hear the voice saying that this may be appropriate for the rest of the animal kingdom, but surely it’s not the same for children. To combat this thought, we head to a nursery school associated with Stanford University and the work of Walter Mischel. The experiment wasn’t particularly profound. Tell the children you’re going to walk out of the room while a tempting treat sits in the center of the table. If they leave the treat until you come back, they’ll get that treat plus another. The experiment was designed to test how long the children would wait before consuming the treat.

It wasn’t until years later when the children were enrolled in school and in their careers that the real value of the experiment began to appear. The children who were able to wait until the researcher returned had measurably better lives across several scales. How is it that a simple test about how long someone could wait for a treat could have such profound consequences to their lives?

It seems that the ability to delay gratification is a keystone skill. This skill can be applied to a variety of life situations and improve their outcomes. If this is an important skill, how can we teach it to our children? Would you believe we need to make them struggle – and succeed with it? That’s the central message of The Marshmallow Test – so named because marshmallows were one of the sugary treats that his team offered to the children.

By creating opportunities for children to try to delay gratification – and succeed – we improve their ability not just in delaying gratification but in life as well.


The kind of self-control and delayed gratification that some children in Mischel’s experiment were able to demonstrate might also be called willpower. That is, the ability of their wills to overcome their desires. It turns out that willpower is an exhaustible resource, and it’s intensely taxing to the brain. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength make the point that willpower is like a muscle in many ways.

Exercising literally tears down our muscles until they’re incapable of doing the things that they’d normally do. After a day of squats, walking up the stairs might be replaced with an embarrassing but necessary crawl. However, what we know about muscles is that they repair and rebuild themselves in a way that leaves them stronger. Nassim Nicholas Taleb would say that muscles are Antifragile. That is, the struggle and setbacks make the muscles stronger. Taleb is clear in his warnings that systems need challenges to increase their strength.

Willpower is like muscles in that the more you exercise it, the more capacity you build. It’s not that you ever get past the fact that it has limits. However, with work, you can build your capacity to the point where you rarely see the edge of your capacity.

When we deprive our children of the kinds of challenges that they need to develop their self-control, self-restraint, and willpower, we are necessarily limiting their potential.

The Story of Struggle

If you’re not yet convinced that our children need struggle, let me tell you another story. This story is the story of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s the life’s work of Joseph Campbell, as he researched the hero stories and myths from cultures across the globe. In the end, Campbell discovered an underlying pattern in every hero story. It wasn’t the ability to fly, or magical powers, or strength, or any of the expected results. The pattern was one of struggle, as the hero started from their ordinary world and were compelled to face a challenge. Every hero struggled. Every hero was transformed into their future state through this struggle.

Without the struggle, there was no hero. There was only some lost person who didn’t know their path or their capabilities. The struggle and transformation take two dimensions: the outer dimension and the inner dimension. If you’ve seen the Star Wars movie series, you’ll recognize the struggle and transformation of Luke Skywalker as he wrestles with who he is.

I’m not suggesting that your child needs to be a hero in the classic, mythical sense, but the same forces forge the character of children as create heroes. If we deprive our children of struggle, we make it harder to find themselves.

It’s a Matter of Mindset

I was about eight or ten years old when I stumbled onto a secret of mazes. I loved them. I’d solve books of them. I wasn’t particularly good at them, I just enjoyed them. One day I accidentally solved a maze backwards and I discovered it was so much easier than trying to solve the maze from the front. Over time, I realized that mazes are designed to present their challenges to those approaching from the start. The traps aren’t designed for those coming at the problem from the end to the beginning.

Consider a major problem of a truck stuck under an overpass on a busy road. The traffic is snarled, and experts in the structural engineering of the bridge are brought in to evaluate if would be possible to raise the bridge. The manufacturer of the truck is called to engage the truck’s engineers and see if there is a way to reduce the height without destroying the structure of the truck. In the end, a child stuck in the traffic snarl wonders why they don’t let the air out of the tires. The way we think about problems shapes the kind of solutions we can consider. In Drive, Daniel Pink explains how “functional fixedness” prevents us from seeing things in ways other than the way they are initially framed or we expect.

Our children can become stuck, too. They can believe that they’re good at math or writing or art – or whatever we’ve told them they’re good at. The problem is that this just isn’t so – at least from the perspective of being fixed in time. If they’re good at something and invest more time in purposeful practice, they’ll get better. If they leave the skill alone, it will atrophy. We as humans aren’t really born with skills that make us talented. We may have subtle interests or advantages that cause us to invest more attention, and the compounding of this upward spiral of improvement makes it seem like people have some inborn talent.

Carol Dweck explains in Mindset that we should avoid fixed mindset – thinking that someone is good or bad or something – and instead replace it with a growth mindset, which recognizes that anything that we will become better at anything we work at. This aligns with the work of Anders Ericsson as explained in Peak. It turns out that purposeful practice makes us better. Steven Kotler explains in The Rise of Superman that we’ve all got the potential to do something “superhuman” if we’re willing to work at it enough.

Overcorrection and Opponent Processes

Sometimes the ways that we find greatness is through struggle. Einstein was no “Einstein” in school. He struggled. He ascribes his prominence not to his gifted talents but rather to his persistence. Somehow, in his struggle, he found a way to overcorrect and become very, very good at what he did. In psychological terms, this is called “opponent processes,” and it describes what happens when we apply a pressure on someone.

The key to coaching and mentoring is finding the place where struggles can be created in ways that cause the opponent processes to kick in. We endure a short-term pain to accomplish the long-term goal of gradually improving. In too many cases, we’re unwilling to allow our children to experience pain and too quick to reward them on the other side.

This attempt to provide them some struggle can break down, however, if they don’t feel safe.

Psychological Safety

There’s something special about some rats. Some of them were licked and groomed just a bit more by their mothers – just enough to change the way they responded to the world. As Paul Tough explains in How Children Succeed, the research showed that the rat pups were more adventuresome and appeared to be less stressed.

Children, in order to learn from their stresses and not be crippled by them, need to understand that they are safe. Failure isn’t just an option, it’s a certainty. When children know that failure is OK if they try again, they learn that they can learn – and that changes them permanently. Any change in a person is hard; just ask someone who works with addicts.

Motivational Interviewing

It was an odd collection of folks. Some well-meaning church people, a few addiction recovery folks that work with teens, and some parents concerned that their children, if not yet addicted to anything, seem to be slipping away from them. The children have reached the critical teenage years, and their conflict with their parents is growing.

The traditional ways of thinking about the problem don’t work, according to one of the addiction counselors. He suggests a book called Motivational Interviewing. The short version is to create space for the addict to question their own situation and outcomes and ponder how things might be different. The set of techniques and approaches build psychological safety with the addict, which is a key issue – if not the key issue – with helping an addict understand the damage they’re doing to their lives.

Somewhere deep inside, the addict realizes the painful outcomes they’re creating, and at least a part of them wants to change. That piece needs a chance to surface and expose what the addict already knows with the rest of the consciousness. Motivational Interviewing helps to build the skills necessary to create the psychological safety to change – or attempt change. It does this, in part, by recognizing the value of individuals and helping to even the scales of psychological value.

Psychological Value

Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues discovered that humans are more focused on negatives than positives. As he relates in Thinking, Fast and Slow, losing $100 is more impactful than a $100 windfall. Understanding this allows people who care to counter the ego’s defenses that want to not admit that you are a slave to something – which is what addiction is. By helping the addict learn how to dwell in the negative outcomes, the scales become a bit more balanced or even shifted, hopefully to help the recovering teen.

Not an Addict

You may be saying that your child isn’t an addict. I hope that’s true. However, the same factors that drive addiction are present in weaker forms in the rest of our lives. We can’t wait to have the new car, so we buy it on credit. We want to get the grade without doing the work, so we cheat the system. Your child isn’t a bad child, but they may be getting caught up in bad patterns. To counter that, we need to accept a few basic principles:

  • Pain and struggle are necessary – It’s not nice to have, but it’s a necessity to grow up properly.
  • Delayed gratification is critical – As a keystone skill, it makes so many other things possible. Where you can, it should be taught and coached into children.
  • Mindset – Children must know that their results are most strongly influenced by the work they put into things.
  • Psychological Safety – Failure is essential and so is trying again. Children must know it’s OK to fail.
  • Psychological Value – Children must be able to see their intrinsic value and understand how to leverage the pain of poor choices to make better choices next time.

If they can get these, then they’re headed down the right path.

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