I wonder how many parents think of whether their baby will be able to focus enough to learn, connect with others and eventually succeed in life in the future. After all, the outside world, specifically if you happen to live in a city like I do, does not seem to be an environment that helps fostering concentration. We hear about an omnipresent ADHD syndrome that arguably so many children suffer from. The debate on screens, when and how to introduce them to children, is another hot topic. A quick visit to a crowded shopping mall, full of glittering lights, noises and people, may cause a baby to cry in the evening because of too much stimulation. In general, the world is bombarding us and our children with enormous amount of information, which we are constantly trying to cope with.
The concept of intrinsic motivation
I need to face the fact is that I have gradually lost the ability to pay an undivided attention for a longer period of time, whereas I was probably born with this ability (at least this is what I remember from my own experience). So what can I do as a parent to help my child maintain this natural motivation to focus? Understanding how human intrinsic motivation works can definitely help, and here comes my favorite concept from Daniel Pink, the author of a great book “Drive”, who explains three components of intrinsic motivation. These are: autonomy, mastery and purpose. “Autonomy” means letting a person have a choice, to decide autonomously what to work on or play with. “Mastery” means that a person is able to improve their skills or knowledge and clearly see progress, while engaging in work or play. “Purpose” means that an individual is clear about the meaning of an activity, or reason, why they engage in it, which is also relevant to their personal values.
When I first heard about it in a business setting, it was eye-opening. Now it comes back handy when I think about my little Tosia. And since I believe babies are whole people from their birthday, I see no reason why this concept should not apply to them as well. Maybe with the exception of “purpose” where I struggle to find relevant connection.
Let me try to bring practical actionable examples, inspired by the “Drive” concept, which I find useful when I think about Tosia’s development.
From our own work experience, I think we can easily refer to instances when we really appreciated when a boss let us fly and do what we believed was the right thing to do, especially if we felt competent in a given subject. So how about Tosia and other kids? How can we enable them to act autonomously?
Refrain from interrupting
After 4 weeks of interacting with Tosia, I already had many occasions to observe how she is staring at an object, usually with vivid, contrast colors or lights and shadows and contemplate it with all her tiny body. It often happens during diaper change, when she sees Mr Carrot, portrayed in the previous post. She is so engaged that I’d rather stop or slow down to let her continue her interaction than force immediate diaper change.
Same applies to her first true play times, when she lies down on a mat, can freely move her arms and legs and watch anything around her. I really do not have to intervene or amuse her in any way. She absolutely knows how to play by herself. I must admit this play times are quite short between sleep, breastfeeding, diaper change or colic but they clearly happen already in the fifth week and will take longer and longer.
Start giving options
Referring to the previous example, this would mean asking Tosia “Do you want to spend a few more moments looking at Mr Carrot or shall I pick you up from the changing table now?” Honestly, I would not expect a clear answer now and I am still guessing what the answer may be every time I ask this question. But I believe she is learning and I am sure that one day I will see and understand Tosia’s preference. And this day may be tomorrow so I ‘d better practice. 🙂
Mastery requires two things: a challenge that is only a little bit more difficult that one’s latest achievement and enough space and acceptance for trial and error.
Do not anticipate baby’s intention and refrain from helping
This sounds controversial, doesn’t it? I already had a chance to notice that Tosia’s interactions with Mr Carrot are evolving. First, it was only about eye contact, now she clearly wants to reach him and touch. I refrain from helping her. I do not move her closer to Mr Carrot nor I bring Mr Carrot closer to her. I can see she may be frustrated about not being able to reach him but she tries hard and I am sure one day she will reach her and enjoy this huge accomplishment. Why shall I deprive her of pride and joy of such achievement? If you now thought, that it is cruel, think about the times parents did something for you, while you wanted to do that by yourself, even if the result was not supposed to be as effective. And hey, I do not say, we should not help our kids at all. I hope you understand that I am describing particular circumstances, when they are working on their own little project, something that they want and not something that they desperately need.
Treat failures as normal outcomes
Any trial may result in failure, actually most of them do, so this is a perfect opportunity to acknowledge effort and treat such result as neutral. Again from Mr Carrot example, I acknowledge when Tosia is extending her arms and body towards him, and I try to remember to say this loud. And when she is disappointed with not reaching her, I simply acknowledge what I see by saying for example: “Tosia, you wanted to touch Mr Carrot, you made a great effort, I saw how you stretched your arms and legs and moved your head towards her. You did not touch him, I see it is disappointing for you”. In the beginning it may sound quite strange, but I am waiting for the moment I will be able to have a dialogue with Tosia and hopefully by then we will already have established a trusting connection.
More examples and ideas to nurture motivation?
Let me share with you an amazing video from my favorite baby documentary called simply: “Babies”, featuring the first year of 4 kids from different parts of the world: San Francisco, Mongolia, Tokyo and Namibia. You can find the whole movie on You Tube, and here is just a short excerpt that shows how frustrating and yet engaging learning can be 🙂
Most of you have older kids than Tosia, so I imagine that allows much more opportunities to facilitate intrinsic motivation and focus. I wonder what your thoughts and strategies are? Do you see any differences between sexes or countries for example? Please share your experiences here or on Facebook fanpage, so that we all learn from one another.
And as always, let’s see what happens next!