Saturday, November 5, 2011

Thinking about Motivation and Teenagers

But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.  Psalm 1
Interesting article posted on Unschooling Catholics -- Teens Respond to Pleasure, Not Pain.

Thus telling a 13 year old that he will fail a test tomorrow if he doesn't study isn't that effective in inducing willing compliance. He knows that. But risk avoidance is not emotionally motivating. And that video game sure is.

Reminding a 13 year old how good it feels to accomplish something, how happy he'll be when he does well, and how much more time he will have to play if he studies efficiently works a lot better.  Those POSITIVE emotions activate their incentive processing center.
 It's easy to over-extend conclusions from limited studies, of course, but in this case the study seems to shed some light on my everyday experience.   It also speaks to some of my questions about diligence as delight and St Jerome translating the passage as "His will (voluntas) is in the Law of the Lord".    Voluntas, then, becomes related to delight rather than what we usually think of as willpower, which usually implies forcing ourselves to do something we would much prefer not to. 

And I like that idea of trying to work towards a positive goal rather than remind the student of the negative consequences.   I can see that temperaments differ here and that some kids thrive on a bit more challenge and even conflict, but my present teenager likes to stay happy and be in tune with the world.  

 St Therese wrote to her sister
‘No word of reproach touched touched me as much as did one of your caresses. My nature was such that fear made me recoil; with love not only did I advance, I actually flew.’
I remember a few years ago, a friend discussed unschooling with me.  She said she didn't think it would work, because the kids wouldn't do math and things like that if they weren't made to.   At the time, though, my daughter was working her way through an algebra book, and learning German, and studying Shakespeare, all because she wanted to.   She wasn't particularly thrilled with the algebra, but she knew she wanted to go to a Catholic liberal arts college and that to do that she would need to know some math.

This study seems to help with the distinction between that "have to" and "want to".   Maybe someone could have said that my daughter was studying algebra because she had to, not because she really loved algebra.  But the point was that no one was standing over her; she knew her goals and what it would take to get there.

Rather than moving away from something, she was moving towards something.... her future, as the person God wanted her to be.  So she did want to do algebra, and she even wanted to love it, because she knew it was a worthwhile subject and would help her develop as a human being, a thinker, not just advance her career goals. 

This year, discussing things with my 15 year old, I've found that he usually wants to do things nobly. So knowing that, I can try to support him through the harder parts, or else help him find a way to make them easier.

St Thomas Aquinas divides emotions up into those two basic categories -- the kind that draw you toward something (love, hope)  and the kind that move you away from something (fear, aversion).   All things considered, it's better to do things for love rather than out of fear.  Fear serves a useful purpose, and is indispensable in our human condition just like pain.   But as Chesterton said:

....this advantage the mystic morality must always have --it is always jollier. A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome.
Though the context is different, the principle applies, I think.    Dwelling on large, grand, positive things helps enlarge a teen's spirit as well as helping him do what he should do.     It may not be possible to always do it this way, but perhaps it is more possible than it sometimes seems, especially since along with their love of pleasure, teens usually are quite idealistic and get pleasure from doing the right thing.


  1. Thanks! I am sure that I need to hear this right now!!

  2. Excellent post! I've been struggling because my teenaged daughter doesn't intend to go to college and isn't taking steps toward a career goal. Right now she doesn't care if she'll need Algebra in case she decides later that she wants or needs college. *LOL* But she does have her passions -- thank God.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!