Positive Motivation (No, It’s Not Blackmail)

When it comes to discipline, there is a significant difference between punishment and natural consequences. Punishment is rife with emotion, threats, hurt feelings and power struggles. A natural consequence, on the other hand, can be as simple as it sounds. It’s just math: a + b = c. There is no need for emotional reactions and the power lies in the hands of the beholder.

(I have written this post from a parent’s perspective but I use the same techniques with my students.)

When my daughter sulked about doing her homework the other night and tested my patience, my intervention was clear and to the point, “If you have no time or energy for your homework then I guess you have no time or energy to play on your tablet. Let me go get it and put it away for awhile.” For my girls, their tablets are what I refer to as their “money”. I do not make the statement in a threatening manner, nor to I frame it as punishment.  I say what I have to say in a calm, clear way. It is nothing more than a logical consequence. I am not just playing with semantics; rather I am teaching my children an essential life lesson which is that we must give our best to our work in order to have free time to play. This is far from being an “all work, no play” philosophy. Instead, when my children whine about their work, I’ll ask them, “Do you enjoy our family vacations?” or “Are you happy we bought a swimming pool last year?” followed by, “How do you think we can afford these luxuries?…It’s because your father and I have learned to find the balance between work and play that we not only have the money to provide you with these luxuries, but that we have the time as well with which to enjoy them. That is the lesson you are being taught right now.” They get it. They just need to be reminded…sometimes more often than we’d like, but we mustn’t give up. They are kids after all.


Anita, a woman I see every now and then at the gym, approached me the other day. “Can you recommend other high schools to me? My daughter is fourteen and she has landed in the wrong crowd. She has just failed two of her classes and she doesn’t seem to care. All she cares about are her friends and talking about her hair, her clothes and boys. Plus she’s always on that darn phone of hers! Maybe if she changes schools, she’ll get serious.”


“I have yet to raise teenagers, so whatever advice I have to offer, please take it with a grain of salt,” I began. “First, let me ask you, do you truly believe her behaviour will change in a new school?” I asked.


“You know, my daughter said the same thing when I told her I would change her school. She says she’s a follower and so she’ll just end up with the same type of girls, or worse,” Anita confided.


“I find it interesting that she sees herself as a follower. I’m not accustomed to hearing kids label themselves as such. I wonder how authentic that statement really is or could she be using it as an excuse for her behavior?” I replied.


“I was thinking the same thing…You know, she doesn’t care anymore about trying to get an 80% on a test. As long as she passes with a 60%, she’s happy. How can she can be fine with that? I need her to care more…How can I make her care more? Two weeks ago when she failed those two classes, I took away her phone and she has yet to get it back. I don’t know what else to do.”


There was so much more I needed to know before I could be of any service to this loving mother. It was clear as day to me that she cares about her daughter. My gut was telling me though that her daughter was feeling alienated from her right now and the disconnect had created a downward spiral effect.


“Has she always done well in school? Is it unusual for her to be struggling?” I inquired.


“I have a tutor for her. I know if she just works hard enough, she can do it.”


“She’s currently enrolled in the international program though, right? That’s a program that has great benefits, but is it possible she is feeling overwhelmed by the increased workload?” I pressed.


“Her cousins are always on the honor roll. But her, she just doesn’t seem to care. She doesn’t even try.”


“This may not be what you want to hear, but I can’t help but feel that for most of the kids who are on the honor role, it comes relatively easily for them. What looks like a wonderful accomplishment is actually a reflection of their passion or their natural aptitude. By no means am I discrediting those students who put in hours of hard work to be on the honor roll, it’s just that in general, the school setting is designed for a specific type of child. Those are the children we tend to see on the honor roll. It’s not fair to expect every child to fit that mold. If every child could achieve it if they ‘just tried hard enough’ it wouldn’t even exist or the criteria would change. The design of the honor roll in my opinion, is flawed. It separates students based on ‘school smarts’ but neglects all the other areas that the so-called ‘regular’ students may thrive in. It sounds to me like your daughter is the type of child who has talents that do not fit the mold of the school system. Am I right? What is she passionate about? What does she imagine herself doing later in life?”


Anita’s face lit up as she began describing her daughter’s love for animals and talent for architectural design. Needless to say, neither of these domains are focused on in the first twelve years of school, which can easily lead a child to believe that school is pointless.


“Here’s the first step I would take if I were you, Anita,” I advised. “Set aside some time for a heart to heart with your daughter to ask her about her passions and her dreams. You need to find some common ground and rekindle a friendly connection. Have her tell you what she sees herself doing in the future, then research college and university programs to see what the prerequisites are for these programs. Give her some concrete information as to why passing her classes with decent grades, not just scraping by, will enable her to attain her dreams. Explain to her that she needs to have good grades to get accepted into the program of her choice. At this point, she just doesn’t know any better. She has no clear, concrete reason to care. By getting on board with her dreams, and seeing things through her eyes, you may be able to give her the motivation she needs to work harder.”


Anita was keen on giving this a try. I was curious to know how her daughter was handling not having her cell phone so I asked, “Have you noticed any improvements in her behavior since you took her cell phone away?”


“…Not really, no,” Anita admitted.


I had a theory as to why it might not be having the effect for which she had hoped. “Does she know what she needs to do in order to get it back? Have you negotiated some type of a contract with her?” This had not occurred to her so I elaborated, “It’s possible that your daughter sees no reason to apply herself harder in her studies because she has no hope for regaining a piece of her independence, i.e. her phone.”


“She is crazy about her phone!” interjected Anita in agreement.


“Most fourteen year olds are, right?” I concurred. “What might help is to sit down with her and negotiate a written contract as to what you expect of her if she wants to get her phone back. She needs to realize that her cell phone is not a right, it’s a privilege, and she needs to know exactly what she needs to do in order to have access to it.” Anita liked the sound of that idea, so we left the conversation at that.


A few days later, our paths crossed again. The expression on Anita’s face was all I needed to know that she had succeeded in getting through to her daughter. She explained to me how her daughter was surprised to learn of the requirements for college acceptance, specifically those related to architecture. It was the equivalent of flipping a switch. The next day, this fourteen year old girl approached her science & technology teacher to sign up for remedial support. As for the cellphone, Anita was still holding on to it but her daughter was thrilled about the idea of a contract. They had yet to pin down the exact criteria, but good grades, not just scraping by, were definitely at the base of the agreement.


“I can’t believe how quickly I was able to get through to her just by changing the way I was saying it!” Anita shared with me.


“It all comes down to re-framing the situation. You are still delivering the same message, but in a way that she can understand. You are speaking her language,” I explained.


“That’s exactly it!” Anita agreed. “You know, I feel bad about the way I am using her phone to get to her to work harder, it feels like blackmail, but she loved the idea of a contract, so I guess I shouldn’t feel bad…” she added.


“It’s not blackmail, it’s positive motivation. You are teaching her about the real world and natural consequences. That phone is like money to her. Just as we have to work to get a paycheck, she needs to do her work to get her phone. There’s no difference and it’s a valuable lesson on the importance of having a good work ethic,” I assured her.


People want to know why they need to do something. It’s an innate desire, and as Simon Sinek explains in his Ted Talk entitled How great leaders inspire action, it’s actually part of our biology. “When we communicate from the inside out (beginning with “why”, then “how”, then “what”) we are talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior.” In order to help a child to see “why”, we must put ourselves in his shoes in order to see the reason for which he is resisting our instructions in the first place. We must learn to see through his eyes. Doing so enables us to connect with the child. When a child feels heard and understood, then, and only then, should we have any hope of making any kind of significant impact on him. This is what I believe Nelson Mandela meant when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” And this, my friends, is what I believe empathic teaching is all about.

Photo Credit goes to oklanica on http://www.flickr.com

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