Note: This post was first published back in February, 2011. It still applies.
I was reminded recently of a commercial on Dutch TV, in which a young boy is picked up at school by his mother. As he approaches her, he’s clearly upset, and though I can’t catch all that he says, it’s clear that he hates school and doesn’t ever want to go back.
After they walk home, they sit at the kitchen table, where his mother pours him a glass of juice, saying ‘Het komt wel goed, schatje.’
This loosely translates as ‘It’ll turn out okay, sweetheart.’
Then the father walks in, looking upset too, and tells them that the promotion went to someone else instead of him. The boy hands his father a glass of juice and says ‘Het komt wel goed, schatje.’
I was reminded of the commercial when I was bicycling along thinking about many students I’ve had (and my own son), who aren’t willing to do the work necessary to do well in school. We call them lazy or unmotivated, and they are, but I was trying to figure out why they’re that way. I think it may have to do with a belief in ‘Het komt wel goed, schatje,’ that seems to have become ingrained in Western culture.
What inspires kids to do their best? The usual answers have to do with either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation: having a goal or finding the material interesting, or feeling a sense of competition, for example. Those all work in one way or another, though I’d suggest that only the first—having a goal—can help a student sustain motivation over a longer period.
But what I was trying to figure out was: what are we doing that allows kids to feel that they don’t have to do their best? How can they feel secure about their future?
Raising children who take everything for granted
And it seems to me that in the Western world—not just here in Holland—that’s the problem: we’ve been raising children who feel too safe. Everything has always turned out okay. They always got the toy they wanted eventually. Their parents always solved whatever problem came their way. And, of course, they always could depend on having enough to eat and clean clothes to wear and a roof over their heads. And if they’ve always had this security, their feeling is: ‘Why should it ever change? This will always be so. The world will take care of me.’
This complete and absolute confidence that everything will be taken care of takes away any motivation to do well in school.
Think about the kids who do their best, who really try hard at school. Of course, that description probably applies to every kid who attends school anywhere in the developing world. They’re motivated because their existence is not secure. They can’t be sure of having enough to eat or clean clothes to wear or a roof over their heads (Forget the toy: it’s not in the realm of their experience.). School is their ticket to security, and they know it. So, despite hunger or helping care for siblings or working the fields after school or not having books or lighting to study by, they work their butts off to do their best.
Of course, in the West, there are certainly kids who try hard. My guess is that those are kids with a clear and difficult goal. How that goal became so clear, and how they came to the realization that they would have to work hard to reach it? I don’t know. Or perhaps those are kids who have experienced deprivation of some sort: lost a home or a parent or gone hungry in the past.
But the rest don’t achieve as much. We tell our students, like I tell my son, that they have to do well, work hard, try their best, in order to succeed in the ‘real world.’ In the end, for many of them, it will turn out okay: through luck, or connections, or the help of their parents. Or perhaps they’ll gain motivation as they get older, go back to school, make up for their laziness as teenagers. But for many, they’re in for a real slap in the face: it won’t turn out okay. They won’t be adequately prepared for the kind of career they want, and won’t live in the ‘style to which they’ve become accustomed,’ unless their parents continue to support them.
Raising children better
The thing is: for the father who didn’t get the promotion, ‘Het komt wel goed’ isn’t true. A glass of juice won’t make it all better, and neither will his parents. He has to make it on his own, and through his own efforts. How can we teach our children this in a way that they’ll really believe it?