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Psych

Simple or difficult?: Children and Motivation

I once had a discussion with a female professor about children. I had suggested that children were simple. She had taken me up on my point and questioned whether it was right or not. Although she didn’t elaborate her position, she seemed to be suggesting that children were more complicated than I had given them credit for.

My own experience of children is with my four nephews, the oldest of whom is seven. The female professor had her own children and her own experience with them, of course.

Today, I had an opportunity to see how simple a child really was. The example under study was the reaction of my oldest nephew to his cough medicine. My nephew dislikes the concoction and I had already noticed that he took a long time to take it, turning his nose up in disgust at it and waving it away from his mouth.

So, when my mother attempted to give him the medicine today, I observed his reaction. How could this child be motivated to take the medicine which he clearly disliked? At first, my mother, his grandmother asked him to take the medicine nicely. So, sweet words had no effect. He would not take it. Then, she tried a different tack. She ordered him to take it. No, this did not work. Authority was therefore ineffective. Next, she engaged his intellect. She explained that the medicine would make him better. This was the use of reason to motivate the child, appealing to his rational nature. This did not work either. Authority was then invoked again. She told the child that she would tell his father that he had not taken the medicine when he came home from work. The fear of punishment and causing his father disappointment did not dissuade the child from his stalwart position. He still refused the medicine. Finally, the boy’s grandmother said she would give him a reward if he gulped down the medicine quickly, like a good boy. At first, he refused, but on the repetition of this promise, he finally took the medicine. It seems that, in the end, the incentive had provided the sufficient motivation.

The reader will observe that the question must arise whether the child was browbeaten into defeat by the constant attack and worn down by the different strategies, including the authority of the grandmother and the threat of the father’s punishment, or whether he really was simple enough to be motivated to take the distasteful medicine because he would be rewarded for doing so, with the unspecified, magical reward. Here, once again, we encounter the question that divided me and the female professor in our discussion: is the child simple, or is he more complicated than I had given him credence for?

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