Weaning Our Children Off Extrinsic Motivation
Essays 2020 / Finalists
Are you a teacher? Parent? Mentor?
Have you ever had to face that defeated look in the eyes of a five-year-old, ten-year-old, or fifteen-year-old? Somehow, there’s a void that nothing seems to fill. Wanting to see some genuine effort, you pull out all the extrinsic rewards you can invest. They work hard, earning stars on their charts, and then… when the system is up, that dull look is back in their eyes.
It’s almost as if they’re conditioned to receive adult recognition, and they feel empty without it. When the initial high of receiving a shiny prize or compliment wears off, so does their energy. Their motivation is depleted.
But imagine you could receive a magic pill that would instantly boost the self-esteem of all the children in your life. In turn, they would no longer turn to outside recognition for that push to perform. They would feel it automatically. They would accomplish everything their potential allows for, and more.
Would you jump at the opportunity?
Lack of Self-Esteem: A Widespread Problem
Unfortunately, no such pill exists. Yet it is the paradox of our times that amidst an era flowing with opportunities for self-actualization, the search for something of the sort has never been greater. For some reason, the gaping hole left by a lack of self-esteem seems to be growing at a rate faster than we can deal with.
To find a few of the millions suffering from lack of self-worth, one needs only to enter a school building — or scroll through social media. Behind each glamorous status post is an upstanding human being turning to receive attention from hundreds, if not thousands of faceless contacts, for a bit of recognition that will fade by day’s end — and thus prompt another round of posting to achieve another fix. The glitz doesn’t seem to sparkle anymore once the spotlight dims. And yet they continue to search.
What is going on?
Some might blame the problem on the symptom itself: the prevalence of preoccupation with social media in our digital age. Others choose to point the finger of responsibility to the educational system. Still others pin the fallout on broken family institutions that are, unfortunately, all too common nowadays.
Although healthy, stable family units and excellent learning environments are crucial to a child’s development and ultimate success, uncontrollable circumstances are not the be-all and end-all of a human’s vast potential. We can’t afford to throw our hands up in the air when the systems fail. We can’t simply move on to the next fresh crop to start over with. These are not numbers we are discussing.
They are children.
As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, states in Ch. 2 of Tanya: we are each a “Chelek Eloka Mimaal Mamash” — each soul is an actual, physical, literal piece of G-d.1 A Neshama, a soul, is not so easily deterred. Children are surprisingly resilient creatures. When given a chance at life, even the newborn will cry to get his way. We clearly have the capabilities.
Yet with all our resources, we still can’t seem to figure it out. People are relying more heavily on outside approval than ever before. But the more recognition we receive, the deeper the wound seems to fester. Compliments feel practically meaningless. And yet there is this ever-present thirst for more. There is a driving hunger to feel of worth. Our generation is desperate, despite having it all. What is going on?
The good news is that there’s a solution. It is a simple mindset, but takes a lifetime of work to implement.
How do we build children up?
We teach them to give up the self.
Let’s Explore the Solution
Sounds contradictory? I will be exploring the Chassidic approach on how one can foster healthy intrinsic motivation in children. Of course, a child can only produce when a solid foundation of self-worth has been instilled. Therefore, the first step in this angle is to explore how self-esteem can be raised specifically through negating the self.
Through the supplementation of anecdotes, these concepts will hopefully translate into practical guidance so that we can lead by example, and ultimately guide the young charges under our care from a wholesome place.
Let’s begin by taking a look at several stories illustrating how our leaders did it.
Once2 a group of Jewish educators came to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, proudly telling him that the number of children in Jewish schools had increased, and now half the Jewish children in the New York area were receiving a Jewish education.
The Rebbe’s response was immediate: “Don’t pat yourselves on the back. What about the other half?”
The Rebbe did not respond with a generous amount of praise. To be clear, he certainly appreciated the educators’ magnanimous efforts.
But the approach of the Rebbe was sharp and to the point. When we take the spotlight off ourselves and return the focus to the job that needs to be fulfilled, a greater motivation is created, along with awe-inspiring results. The self-confidence is then a natural by-product of the effort itself, and does not need to be artificially introduced.
Here is another story.
Once Rabbi Shalom Dovber, the Rebbe Rashab, was sitting at a meeting with some other Jewish leaders. The Russian government was trying to limit Jewish education with certain rules, and many people in the Jewish community felt that there was no other option but to give in.
The Rebbe Rashab disagreed. So together with a group of Rabbis, he went to explain his ideas. As they were considering different options, the Rebbe Rashab broke down and began to cry!
One of the other Rabbis tried to comfort him, saying: “Lubavitcher Rebbe, why are you crying? You’ve done all you can. You have done your job. No one can hold you responsible and say you didn’t try.”
The Rebbe answered: “But the goal still needs to be accomplished!” He was not thinking about his own self; he was focused on the mission.
Where Peace Resides
In our society, we are subconsciously conditioned to place value on what others think of us. This in turn creates an intense preoccupation with the “self”.
What is this self?
According to Chassidus, the “feeling that one exists” is called “Yeshus”. As long as we are fighting to assert ourselves as beings separate from G-d, the more discomfort our G-dly soul will feel. And it is this struggle that directly creates a painful lack of self-esteem. For how can a person feel content while they are living in direct contradiction to the purpose for which they were created? As it says in Tanya, Ch. 22: “True holiness can only rest on the being that is completely subjugated to G-d.”3 We were created only to serve G-d.4 This is the space where ultimate peace exists, and the path to achieve world perfection.
When we turn to others for feedback for all our actions, both good and bad, we unknowingly foster an extrinsic motivation that is superficial at best and destructive at worst. It sends our children spinning into an all-consuming obsession with receiving constant validation that “I am here, and I am good”.
But when we remove ourselves from the picture and focus on the mission at hand, even the smallest child is enabled to reach the loftiest of aspirations.
This is what the Alter Rebbe was teaching us in the Tanya. This is what enabled the Rebbe Rashab to keep going, risking his life to preserve Jewish education. This is what spurred the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s movement of Shlichus onwards. Give. Give. Give. It’s not about us. It’s about G-d.
Let’s Get Practical
This all may sound inspirational, but as teachers and parents, it can be difficult to implement. How do you instill a love for learning and giving in a child who already feels like he has nothing to offer? How can you convince an insecure teenager that she has inestimable value?
The answer is that you can’t.
Let us analyze the prevalent modern approach which is to encourage children through praise. To utilize an example: your daughter shows you a beautiful painting she made in school. According to the typical school of thought, she deserves a compliment. And how can it hurt? So you dole out generous praise. By giving such a compliment (i.e.: “You are the best artist”) — you might think you aren’t doing any harm.
But a day will come when your daughter discovers that a better artist out there exists. Perhaps just a week later, a classmate might win the drawing contest. Now what? Clearly your daughter isn’t the best anymore. All her hard work was for naught. A sore feeling develops, one that will become all too familiar with time as she goes through life in a society in which we use outside approval as a measure of self-worth.
Psychological research is starting to come to the conclusion that overpraising is actually damaging to children. According to parent educator, Vicki Hoefle, praise trains children to constantly seek feedback from others about how they are doing. Kids who thrive on praise want to know, “Did I do a good job?” “Do you like it?” “Are you proud of me?’ “Did I do it right?”5
This dependence on positive feedback can cause children to overly value what other people think of them. They learn to make decisions based on how they believe others will respond to them.
So how do we build children up?
By showing them that they’re needed.6 Respond to your child’s artwork with a comment that shows how she can have a positive impact. (I.e.: “Your grandparents would be so happy to hang this on their fridge! Let’s mail it to them right now.”)
And when the grandmother calls her up several days later to say that she received the painting — and then gushes on about how she feels so happy to see her granddaughter’s artwork on her fridge — the child has received a lasting lesson. A sense of self-confidence follows as a natural result.
We teach our children that we can make a difference in the world through all our actions, big and small. The drawing may fade and perhaps even be thrown out one day, but the joy one soul caused another is eternal.
When we give children small tastes of seeing how their actions affect the world, they will no longer need to turn to outside recognition for self-worth. They will feel it automatically as a by-product of the fulfillment of their purpose through the utilization of their strengths and talents, whatever those may be.
This is where the trick lies. To raise productive, self-assured children, we must teach them to place less emphasis on perfecting the Yeshus, the “self” that the world sees. As long as they are reliant on our approval, they will struggle with their own esteem.
Stop trying to “give them confidence”. It’s not going to work. It may give them the temporary high of feeling acknowledged for one moment, but if you want to give the lasting gift of imbuing them with a passion to contribute to society, it’s going to happen when you get out of the way.
We teach by example. To model self-confidence, surrender yourself. To activate your own potential, work on actualizing someone else’s. It sounds contradictory, but it works. It is in this space of quiet self-nullification — of steady, strong and purposeful existence — where magic suddenly starts to happen.
Give a child a purpose, and he will flourish. Give a student a project to organize, and she will feel needed for the first time in her life. You can even give yourself a daily block of time during which you deliberately focus on everyone else’s needs. Whether it’s in your own home, work environment, or social gathering, it doesn’t matter. G-d places us exactly where we need to be to serve Him. The feeling of competence will grow as we practice.
Remember, it’s not about them. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about G-d, and making this world a dwelling place for Him.7 And when it comes to that, no one can go wrong.
1 …לקוטי אמרים תניא, פרק ב: “ונפש השנית בישראל היא חלק אלו-ה ממעל ממש
3 לקוטי אמרים תניא, פרק כ”ב: “כי אין קדושה עליונה שורה אלא על מה שבטל לו יתברך, כנ״ל…”
4 (קדושין פב, א) “לא נבראו אלא לשמשני ואני נבראתי לשמש את קוני”
6 Raising a Child with Soul: How Time-Tested Jewish Wisdom Can Shape Your Child’s Character by Slovie Jungreis-Wolff
7 מאמר באתי לגני