How Do You Motivate A Child To Be Great?

Today, I was overcome by daydreams of what I want for my daughter. I would like to teach her how to pursue greatness; not that she must pursue greatness, but that she must know how to pursue it, on the off-chance that she chooses to do so. How does one teach a child self-motivation?

I thought I blogged about this recently, but scanning through my recent posts, it looks like this was all just a passing thought on my way to conceiving of this post. There, I discussed the fact that being open to a change is a major necessary condition for human progress. If you don't think things can get much better than they are now, you're less likely to pursue something different.

The seed of that post, though, was my attempting to think through how I am going to teach my daughter to be a good distance-runner; if indeed she chooses to be a runner at all.

As the old adage goes, "Necessity is the mother of invention." People don't tend to figure out how to solve a given problem until they actually need to. You'll never pack your suitcase as efficiently as the day you need to fit 25% more clothing inside the same amount of space. It's impossible to cook a decent meal from a few boring ingredients until you're snowed-in, unable to make it to the grocery store, and stuck with what you have on hand. No matter how little free time you think you have, it's amazing how easily you can scrape together several hours when your young child needs you for something.

Unfortunately, there is a flip-side to this, which is that people who are living comfortably and easily will tend to eschew innovation. After all, why bother trying to make things better when things are already fabulous? And why bother to push oneself to be a great runner if one lives comfortably, in a nice house, with many wonderful toys and a family who loves you no matter how you choose to spend your time?

As a child, I, too, lived comfortably and had all the toys I wanted. But I was also a social outcast who tended to be chosen last in pickup games of football, basketball, baseball, and so on. Sports never resonated with me until I discovered distance-running. Whether I was drawn to it because of my natural ability or because it was an easy way to express athletic superiority in a community of people who lorded their football ability over me, I have no idea. The fact simply remains that I had found my kingdom and intended to defend it. Whenever any other kid came close to beating me in a race, I'd angrily spend the next few weeks pushing myself harder and harder. When I'd lose races, I'd feel ashamed. I desperately wanted this thing, distance running, to be mine. I imagine that other people who do things well feel similarly for those things. When you've tasted what it's like to be the best, you never want to be anything less. This drove me to reach ever-further, until I was one of the top 10 distance runners in a state full of great distance runners.

I cannot guarantee that experience for my own child; and quite obviously, even if I could, I would never wish it on her! My drive to be a good runner grew out of a bad situation. Only a very cruel parent would create negative conditions for his own child so that she might reach greatness. That's crazy.

But then, how do you motivate a child to achieve great things? It's easy enough to force a child to do her homework; the assignment is given, and child must do it or else get bad grades and generally flunk out of life. An old teacher of mine, from China, used to tell us students that the reason Chinese students do well in math is because they do each homework assignment three times. That seems a little extreme, but realistically so. If I wanted to help my daughter better understand her subjects, I can imagine myself telling her to do her homework three times.

I cannot imagine forcing my daughter to run. I can't imagine driving her to the gym while she's crying or frustrated and wants to do something else. It extra-curricular. Her life will be wonderful whether she or not she becomes a great runner (or a great artist, or a great whatever). Since I have no intention of forcing her, then the next-best option is to try to plant the seed in her mind that the voluntary pursuit of achievement is awesome. But how?

Some of you might be wondering what difference it makes whether she pursues some great achievement. After all, I myself have achieved very little, and I have a great life. It's likely that things will be the same for her, too.

That's fine, but there are many good reasons to try to be great at something. By being a pretty good distance-runner, I got to enjoy all of the following unique experiences: I had a full-ride athletic scholarship to university; I got to experience the way schools pamper varsity student-athletes; I got to travel throughout the country for competition, and I never would have had those travel experiences otherwise; I found a social group to which I belonged, and was able to have many coming-of-age experiences within the safety of that social group; I earned many people's respect, which is a nice feeling; I learned about the limits and capabilities of my own body; I developed a sharp sense of self-discipline; I acquired a lifelong hobby that keeps me healthy and fit.

If any parent could guarantee all those good experiences for their own child, they would do it instantly. Those are the things I want for my daughter. So, it's not really about the greatness so much as it is about the kinds of experiences people gain access to when they are pretty good at something.

I'd be crazy not to give that to my daughter, if I can do it.

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