Michael was driving his father Josef crazy. Getting Michael to do his homework was always a bit of a challenge ever since he started getting homework in the third grade. But what was a challenge in the third grade became a hassle by fourth grade, a battle by 6th grade and now, in eighth grade, he had simply stopped turning it in.
This was the focal point of an October parent-teacher conference I attended. For ten minutes Josef reported using every trick in the parenting handbooks. Then he started talking about his fear that Michael was ruining his chances for success. “My parents came here from Serbia when I was his age. We had no money. My father had to work evenings. I understood without having to be told that you have to work hard to succeed. I literally worked my way into Berkeley. I tell Michael that he has to work hard if he wants to get into a good college. I can’t seem to instill a work ethic into him.”
Then Karen, the teacher, said, “The really funny thing is, that he actually is doing very well in class. He participates actively in class, he asks good questions, seems to know the material; he aces the math tests, and he writes well. It’s as if he actually does his homework then doesn’t turn it in.”
“So you think he does the work and doesn’t turn it in?” I asked.
“Yes, I think so,” said Karen.
“That’s weird,” said Josef.
“I’ve seen this before.” I said. “It’s like this. Michael is motivated to learn and succeed just like his father. Not turning in homework is his way of saying to his father, ‘This is my work and my life. Stop trying to make me into something. You can’t make me; I have to make myself.’ Not turning in his homework is an act of self-respect. Self-actualization looks like this sometimes.’”
Josef’s face changed, “I did the same thing to my father,” he said.
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“He wanted me to go Columbia. I applied to Columbia, was accepted, and went to Berkeley. He was very angry.”
“There you go,” I said. “Self-actualization in action.”
“Perfect,” said Karen.
“He was angry for a while after that,” said Josef, “but it didn’t last forever. He was very proud of me when he died.”
I have seen this phenomenon for my entire career. “I am trying to instill a work ethic in Lisa. It freaks me out to think I am raising a lazy person.” “I can’t seem to motivate Peter. I am afraid he just doesn’t care.” “I worry that Todd has an evil streak in him. He keeps hurting other people.” These fears often come true, because to the child they feel like mistrust, and the child’s self-respect rebels.
Maximizing internally motivated decision-making is the key to maximizing success—academic or otherwise. I might be able to get my grandson to set the table, but real success is getting him to want to set the table. Josef’s real goal is not to get Michael to do the homework, but to want to do the homework.
Maria Montessori’s dictum “Follow the child,” is especially applicable when it comes to motivation. Our main asset in fulfilling our goals for our children is hiding in plain sight: in the children, themselves. Children come to us preprogramed with internal motivation. Acting as if they don’t is the best way to make them look lazy. Fears come true, and this is the dynamic that makes parental fears come true.
When a parent cares more about it than the child, it absolves the child of responsibility. Michael was saying, “You can’t make me.” In fact, he was screaming it. Once Josef put himself in Michael’s shoes he realized that his son had the same drive to be successful that he did. Act as if kids want to learn how to be valuable to others, and they will show you it’s true. “Follow the child,” and watch your fears vanish. This concept is at the core of the Montessori genius.
But following the child does not mean “back off.” Following the child only positions us to let the children play their position. Children need the environment to give them accurate feedback about the results of their decisions, and we are part of the environment. Kids count on us for the truth, which includes defining and defending boundaries.
The child is accountable to the teacher for the homework; the teacher defines the homework and the consequences. If the homework isn’t working, it’s the teachers’ job to design it so that it does. Yes, the children build the pink tower themselves, but our job is to design the pink tower.