Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The fine line on motivation

So it was a recent Saturday night and the following conversation took place with Child No.1:
"Come on. Would you like to watch some TV?"

"Are you kidding? I have work to do."

"But perhaps a rest is in order ..."

"Look if I don't get this homework done now I will only have to do it tomorrow. Be real!"
Ahh, I thought to myself. A chip off the old block. My daughter at home on a Saturday night working on a school project. A colleague listening in on this conversation in disbelief (and knowing my own history on this) exclaimed: "what is wrong with you people??? Are you all crazy?"

Let's face it, this isn't the most common of 9 year old problems but, as I guess so many who read this blog already know, I don't have a common 9 year old. Not only is she the epitome of the 'rational agent' in economics with clearly defined motives (food and money) and a dramatic responsiveness to incentives, she is also somewhat driven. When it comes to assigned tasks, she does them and she does them until they are done.

But it goes deeper than that. In terms of school-led authority -- in contrast, to parent-led authority -- she obeys with a literal meaning. School and teacher rules are rules meant to be followed. Not just in spirit but to the letter.

Let me give you an example. Last year, her mother was waiting for 15 minutes after the end of school for my daughter to emerge from class. All the other children had come out but she was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, she went inside. My daughter was standing dutifully behind her desk. All of the chairs in the classroom were neatly staked on the desks (as they do for nighttime cleaning). There were no other children there and there was no teacher.
"Why didn't you come out?"

"We weren't dismissed."

"What do you mean? All of the other children have gone."

"But our teacher didn't have us for the last session and we had to come back from art. So we came back and no one was here. The rest left. But since we hadn't been dismissed I figured we had to stay."

"But wasn't the fact that all these chairs were up giving you some sort of clue?"

"Oh no. When we came back they weren't up. Everyone else left without doing it. So I put them up and waited."
Now one can be comforted that our child will obey the rules but there is also something sad and deeply worrying about this episode. "If the teacher had said jump off a cliff would you do it?" You actually want your child to be more flexible than that. Although she wasn't in danger at some point you'd hope that she would realise something was amiss and rules could be broken. I guess she wasn't hungry yet.

Herein lies our current issue and that of her teacher. Child No.1 will do as she is told at school but will do it with robot-like intensity. That creates all manner of issues. For instance, this weekend she spent hours, colouring in her 'Yearbook.' Our daughter is driven but slow at tasks and so is behind in that one. She was still doing April. As I watched what she was doing I asked why she had to fill each page so completely with designs, words and colours. The reason: "our teacher says not to leave any white bits." I argued that that seemed ridiculous. "No he actually said that to the class." I then, trying to get her to question authority more, gave her a lecture about judgment and thoughtfulness on whether a task is worth doing. That would come back to bite me very quickly.

Today we did one of our rare things and inquired about this and some other rules laid down that I had put in the ridiculous category. Her teacher explained that most kids (you know, the rest of them) needed to put just a bit more effort into the Yearbooks and so he had asked the class to fill in as much as possible. But what my daughter heard was: "he doesn't like white spaces so I had better fill it all in." And it is not like she just fills for its own sake. Given other pronouncements, each bit is an intricate design without a hint of the initial page colour. Well no wonder it takes so much time. The problem was he was trying to move the mass but in the process sent my daughter to extremes.

Together her teacher and ourselves all agree she needs to do less, use judgment and prioritise more. Interestingly, many years ago, my own parents had heard complaints from a teacher of someone, who will remain nameless (but isn't my brother), that their son should really stop on the school project after Volume 2! The project did, in fact, end up in three volumes. So there is some familiarity with this problem in our family. But a good work ethic is not something we want to extinguish (it could prove quite useful in a few years). Nonetheless, that concern aside we discussed action plans to get the workload down.

One issue, of course, is that prioritisation is not a trait that I possess. As my spouse puts it, "you do everything so damn quickly you never need to worry about it." So I guess lessons in such techniques will not come from me and my "just do it" attitude.

That said, incentives can balance the situation. Saying to my daughter, get this finished in the next half hour or there is no dinner works. But it is a delicate balancing act. Get the set of prices slightly wrong and we can have an extreme response.

And there is one final piece to the puzzle. I didn't talk to the teacher today, Child No.1's mother did. She had to listen to a rant as to it being very unhelpful when a parent (I wonder who) says a particular practice is "ridiculous" when he is just trying to get some balance in the children's work habits. I guess I have to agree with that one but I did actually have a more nuanced approach that talked about what was happening at home rather than school. For school, you do what the teacher says.

Anyhow, I wondered: how did he find out about my particular opinions? Fortunately, it wasn't the case that Child No.1 had simply volunteered this information. Remember she is strategic so she knows that there is value in withholding certain things. But when asked by her teacher why her parents wanted to talk, she spilled the beans.

But that is part of the issue. Child No.1 knows that information is valuable for strategic reasons. The problem is that she is far from socially sophisticated enough to know which information should be withheld for which adult -- teacher or parents. And so she makes judgments that results in a very distorted flow of communication between ourselves and her teacher. Another difficult management issue for us.

This, however, I suspect is not an issue her mother faces. I wasn't part of the conversation but I'm pretty darn sure that all of the blame for communication difficulties and the genetic pre-dispositions of Child No.1 have been firmly laid in my lap! When I finally front up for her official parent-teacher interview next month, things could get a tad interesting.