L'Chaim! / Living Jewish
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

"Achievement Motivation" Reconsidered: Part II

Gratification -- Now or Later?

By Dr. Jacob Mermelstein

BECAUSE THE VALUE OF SCHOOL TASKS IS NOT immediate, it is essential that children develop an ability -- indeed, an understanding -- of postponing gratification. This is a fundamental coping mechanism whose failing to master will, inevitably, impact the child negatively throughout adolescence.

While there is no doubt that this goal is quite a difficult task for young children because of the intensity of their instinctual drives and because their concept of the past and the future is not fully developed, postponement of immediate gratification can be developed. Children who basically trust their parents will have trust in the future because their parents say so even if the concept "future" is quite hazy. Trust in one's parent is the outcome of a warm parent-child relationship, when promises are scrupulously kept and when parents offer rewards with their demands. Such rewards need not, of course, be material ones. A sense of well-being, warmth, physical and emotional contact, a smile or look, more than suffice. Needless to say, such training should be gradual, with ever increasing periods of time between need and gratification. Of course, a warm parent-child relationship is in itself gratifying and can "take over" when the real gratification is in the distant future.

The Parent as Model

When the child becomes his parent in role-playing episodes, he more than imitates; he identifies with him and in a sense becomes the parent himself. This can be observed when the child takes over many of the parent's mannerisms, modes of speech or posture. It inevitably involves the parent's code of behavior, his goals and aspirations, and sense of values. Not only does "the apple not fall far from the tree," the apple contains the seed which grows into the very same kind of tree.

This kind of mechanism accounts for the known fact that children do not grow up as their parents want them to be. They rather resemble -- or are what the parents themselves are. Like it or not, our children often mirror our actions as we are, not as we choose to view ourselves. It is, thus, of no need to mention that parents should be adequate models for their children. It is, however, a sad fact that invariably parents demand more of their children than of themselves as far as achievement is concerned. As a member of a business organization, the parent may be satisfied with not being in the highest echelon -- but the child must have A's and outrank his fellows. Adults know of their inefficiency and frequent mediocrity of performance, but as for the child -- he must do his best.

In addition, there are many inconsistencies such as parents professing love for learning yet hardly opening a book themselves. It is no wonder then that children are bewildered. They feel that parents are unjust in demanding more of the child than of themselves -- and in addition lose respect because of the transparent hypocrisy.

Consequently, the identification process becomes filled with anxiety and doubt. The young child who was so very anxious to be like Daddy is no longer so very sure. There will thus be less imitative play and less acceptance of the parent as a model.

Of course, parents could be "perfect." But if they are not, they can at least have goals for their child not out of proportion with their own goals. Parents can be more consistent themselves and if they cannot be so, it may be better for them to stop their preaching.

The School and Achievement Motivation

Much of what has been said about the home can be applied in school, too. Teachers know very well that "success breeds success." They should, however, make it possible for all children to be successful. This may call for many and repeated adjustments in curriculum planning for a class as a whole and for the individual child.

Why do the very same children who clamored for homework in first grade and loved those little assignments come to loathe it later on? Obviously, if homework tasks would be introduced ever so gradually, with a likelihood that the child can do the work at home, the child could not develop such an aversion to it so soon. So it is with most school tasks. Lack of motivation and aversion to school tasks come about when tasks are too difficult, when success is unlikely, and when learning is then heaped upon earlier learning which never did take place adequately. Thus the child who lost out earlier in his school career rarely ever catches up.

More effort is needed to locate the child's level of achievement at the time when instruction is to take place and then introduce the slightly more difficult task -- one that can be mastered with just a little more effort.

It is said that frogs have been boiled alive when the temperature of the water they were in was raised ever so slowly. Can then our children not be put into a comfortable environment and, when the "heat must be put on," can this not be done in a slow and painless fashion?

A Delicate Transition

More important yet is the transition to more difficult tasks. These must always be ever so gradual if the child's early achievement motivation is to be sustained throughout his school career. To water down instruction indiscriminately will not do the job, for lack of a need to exert oneself will stifle motivation. Instruction should selectively be made easier and more difficult in order to assure success with some effort.

Children who come to school with strong achievement motivations and thus a good deal of independence will thrive when teachers call upon their students to take initiative and to actively participate in the planning and execution of what goes on in the classroom.

Thus, similarly to the home situation a regimen of initiative, exertion, success and repetition should assure each child the successful school career that is his due.

In Short

Children usually come to school with an apparently innate motivation to succeed scholastically. This can be seen in their eagerness to imitate their elders even when this entails a good deal of exertion.

Parents and teachers can help develop and sustain such motivations. Several factors are involved. Initiative is the first of these and implies training the child to be independent, active and responsible for his actions. Some effort and accompanying frustrations play an important role. An adequate measure of success is necessary if the effort is to be repeated. Thus tasks should be just within reach with some effort.

Parents need to help children develop an ability to postpone gratification; that is to do tasks now for reward in the future. This can be accompanied by gradually delaying gratification. A truly warm parent-child relationship is essential.

Children identify with their parents by imitating them. Parents should thus be adequate models, reasonable in their expectations, and consistent in their own beliefs and values.

The school can help by first presenting the child with tasks that he can do with some effort but are not way beyond them. Thereafter task-difficulty should be ever so slowly increased. The curriculum must be flexible enough to provide tasks at multiple levels as each child's need demands. And teachers need flexibility to experiment, small classes to know each child's ability, and sufficient time to provide all this for our young.

All this may sound like a tall order. It is, however, quite cheap and certainly worthwhile when one compares it to the heartaches, the failures, the wasted man hours and lives, which come about when one's scholastic career was an unwelcome burden, where little learning actually took place.

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


© 1998, Jewish World Review