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Parental control and children’s intrinsic motivation

November 7, 2010 4 comments

Since becoming a parent, I have always been fascinated about how parental control and motivation of children are interrelated.  Many mainstream parenting books have touched upon the subject and discuss the spectrum of parenting techniques based on work by Diane Baumrind (authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and everything in between). I happened upon a book a few years ago that delves into this issue in much more detail: The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meaning Parenting Backfires by Wendy S. Grolnick. I am going to share a few items from that book in my next few posts, although I highly suggest reading the book. It discusses many research studies on the topic of parental control and its effects and many of the results are counter-intuitive and incredibly insightful.

For example, the book quotes studies by Dweck et al.(1998), which found that found that when children were praised for being smart after successfully completing an assigned task, they did not enjoy a subsequent, more challenging task as much as kids who had been praised for effort. Furthermore, on the second round, the kids praised for intelligence were more likely to choose the easier problems that would make them look good.  These kids also were more likely to attribute mistakes to a lack of ability and gave up trying more quickly. Those praised for effort, however, tended to pick more challenging problems and also enjoyed the exercise more. The kids praised for effort were also more likely to see intelligence as linked to improvement, rather than a static trait. My own interpretation of the research is that praising for intelligence versus effort results in kids who feel trapped to have to live up to the label, which makes them afraid to fail. The beauty of failure is that you learn that you can get up and try again. Kids who are praised for effort aren’t pressured to perform to an expectation and can relax and focus on learning.

It such a simple concept, but a potentially very important and powerful one.