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Reader Response

L'Chaim / Living Jewish
January 1, 1998 / 3 Tevet, 5758

"Achievement Motivation" Reconsidered

By Dr. Jacob Mermelstein

Among the most popular childhood games over the years has remained "house," "school," and other role-playing fun times. Our little ones get their thrills in creating situations that imitate their elders. And in the process, they are ready, indeed are happy, to watch their "baby" in the doll carriage for prolonged periods, "clean" the house, do the laundry, etc. While playing "school" their never seems any problem with a "pupil" daydreaming nor does he balk when "punishments" are meted out.

Nothing can delight a teacher more than a first-grader who verbalizes his disappointment when he is off from school, when there is no homework or that little was learned in class.

But whatever happens to this over-abundance of enthusiasm and seemingly endless amount of motivation for learning and doing as the child matures? Can we not capture this eagerness to learn, reinforce it and build upon this apparently natural and almost universal order for knowledge and mastery? Instead, parents are forced to set up artificial situations to stimulate our young and to reward them in order to perform.

Can this process -- the deterioration of an innate motivation for learning in children -- be halted or at least slowed down? Or better yet, can parents help develop and then, together with the teacher, sustain and foster the child's innate achievement motivations?

A number of observable factors would indicate the answer is yes -- achievement motivation can be fostered in children without extraneous rewards or reinforcement.

The Child's Need to Master His Environment

When children have reached the stage in life when they can accomplish simplistic feats, there seems to be a drive for them to do so. Parents can see this readily when their child first sits up, walks or talks. All that seems to be necessary is the child's physical or psychological ability, an opportunity to perform and an adequate model to copy. Once the task has been accomplished, the child, furthermore, tends to repeat his performance without any overt stimulation. This can be frequently observed when, for example, the child is first able to stand up. Without encouragement, from others or any apparent need, he pulls himself up, stands bathed in a grin of satisfaction, "plops" down, only to repeat the process over and over again.

This rudimentary bit of behavior can serve as a model for more complicated learning tasks. It involves a principal which may be called "initiative, exertion, success and repetition."

Initiative to stand up for the first time comes, apparently, from within the child -- a drive to explore, to do what he is able to, to act and master his environment.

Exertion as such does not impede the tendency to perform because without exertion one cannot really speak of mastery. On the contrary, exertion in itself seems to be a motivating factor, because once the child can pull himself up without undue effort he ceases to do so unless it is to serve another purpose.

Success seems to be crucial. Without success, exertion is fatiguing, without reward and thus discouraging. The healthy infant does not exert himself unless such exertion is related to an attainable goal.

Repetition is a corollary of success. Success is a pleasurable state that demands repetition. What he can do he wants to do. It can thus be said that success makes repetition both possible and even likely to occur.

This type of behavior -- involving initiative, success and repetition -- can be observed at all levels of maturity. It makes the homemaker decide to exert herself and bake a cake though it can be bought. But it will limit her to attempt only those recipes where success is likely; yet, if successful, will make for repeated efforts for the same dish. This cluster of behavior patterns is responsible for children initiating games and activities; delighting in strenuous games, and finding satisfaction in the same task even after innumerable repetitions. And it should serve parents and teachers to foster achievement motivation in the child without artificial and extraneous methods or devices.

All learning is dependent upon some initiative, a readiness to act on one's own. Individuals will act when it is their belief that there is a need to act and that through one's action the aspired goal can be achieved. This calls for training in independence at a relatively early age in life and allowing the child to make more and more decisions on his own as he matures. For example, within reason, he is to be allowed and indeed encouraged to make his own friends, choose his own clothing and try difficult tasks without asking for help.

This demands a kind of attitude in the home where individuals are encouraged to be active and manipulate the environment rather than be passive, pessimistic and having a kind of "what's the use" attitude. It calls for a philosophy of life that believes in personal responsibility of one's actions rather than a fatalistic and passive attitude toward life.

The need to exert oneself and to expend effort makes some frustration in early childhood necessary and beneficial. Obviously, ready gratification of every whim would stifle achievement. It would impede initiative and make effort unnecessary. Because success is so important to learning and fostering achievement motivation, tasks which are presented to the child must be within reach, albeit with some effort. Parents frequently make the mistake of encouraging the child to walk or be toilet-trained before he is ready -- usually because the neighbor's child is. Or, he is given a bicycle or toy before mastering of these are within his reach.

As a result, the child develops a negative attitude toward such tasks and subsequently training becomes more difficult. To prove this point, parents need only check up on which toys are almost never used by the child; they are usually those given to him before he was able to master their use.

Continued next issue.

Previous articles:

Dr. Jacob Mermerlstein on childhood depression


Dr. Jacob Mermelstein is a practicing psychologist, certified both in New York and New Jersey.

©1998, Jewish World Review