I hear most parents long for the days before puberty mutated their child. School aged children are incredibly willing to be involved in something and strikingly sure about themselves. They want to do something and are pretty sure they can do it. Even if they can’t do something they are still remarkably resilient. (All of this is generally speaking of course, any parent can tell you otherwise.)
Children are certainly different from teens and adults. They’re resilient, but they’re also naive, which is what makes them resilient, and it’s all because their brains aren’t fully developed.
Thinking abstractly about concepts or ideas is not in their tool box. Their mind operates concretely, so they’re only able to think about what’s in front of them, be it their thoughts or the task at hand. They can’t fully grasp how their actions will effect them and they can’t fully grasp what others might be thinking about them.
Take for instance stage fright. Compared to a teen, a child is less scared about what people might think of them and more concerned with what they think about themselves. A child’s struggle is less about embarrassment and more about their ability to complete a task, that is their sense of competence or industry.
A child’s sense of industry is their understanding of their ability to be able to do. Succeeding at something may tell a child that they are good at it, but more importantly, it tells them that they can do something successfully. The ability to see one’s self as able to perform a task is a quality that gets people through life. This sense of industry enables someone to feel confident in the face of challenges, present and future.
However, industry is not just about accomplishing tasks, it’s also about failing them. When failure is taught well it can teach a child to “get back up” and instill qualities of perseverance, creativity and cost/benefit analysis.
Taught poorly, failure can teach a child to feel inferior and an inferiority complex can look two ways (if not more). 1) A child will feel like a perpetual failure and that they simply cannot do something successfully, no matter the task. 2) The child only feels successful when they succeed at tasks others deem valuable.
For kids, there’s more to succeeding than the sweet taste of victory and there’s more to failing than the bitter taste of defeat. Say what you want about participation awards, but for some that’s the only meaningful recognition they’ll get for finishing something they wanted to do regardless of whether they won or lost.
For adults, victory or failure today motivates to find victory tomorrow. Plus, victory or failure yesterday figures into how motivated we feel about our victories and failures today. Adults think long term, putting past, present and future together in a grand narrative about their self identity.
Children can’t think that way.
Their concrete thinking doesn’t mean that yesterday translates to today or that today translates to tomorrow. A child doesn’t necessarily grasp how yesterday’s punishment for the same action today relates. They also don’t necessarily grasp how today’s victory means anything for the future.
Sometimes immediate external punishments or rewards are necessary, but with less immediate lessons these external motivators teach a child to base their motivation on what they can get or avoid by doing what others want.
And when the system of external benefits/punishments vanishes, so does the motivation. External motivators runs the risk of teaching children to do something for someone else and not teach them a desire to do it for themselves. Ultimately, it teaches them to live out others’ wants and not their own.
This industry/inferiority complex can also be seen in life’s later success and failures. The struggle of #adulting (whatever that actually is) is at least a later age struggle with feeling inferior. Having a child succeed in youth sports or academics taps into the same struggle (plus probably a couple others). Getting fired, wanting to quit, struggling in marriage, getting in debt, fear of becoming a parent or a new job, etc., etc. these can all manifest this childhood marker.
We never truly leave this struggle behind, just revisit it in new ways. We will always struggle with trying to do the right thing and #adulting, but that struggle often taps into the much deeper struggle of our own sense competence and feeling like we can do what we put our minds to.
Developing a personal sense of industry is hard work. Hopefully, whenever we walk away from it we are more confident in our own industry and competence than the last time. And because it’s hard work, be it a parent & child going through it or an adult revisiting it the process is messy.
It’s difficult for parents not to rely on external motivators to get children to want certain things or act appropriately especially in certain situations. It’s also difficult for children not to learn on external motivators. It’s difficult to not rely on external motivators as an adult.
I can only assume it’s also messy when it comes to the church’s mission. How does one motivate another be it a child, parent or peer? I can’t say that it looks any certain way.
Yet, no matter how it looks, it is always a work that helps children make sense of their successes and failures, helps parents help their children, and helps adults make sense of their current successes and failures plus helps them make sense of past successes and failures that inform how they see their current ones.
Bonus note: This is also a work that promotes a healthy sense of identity, so that whoever one eventually sees themselves to be, they feel they can be that person successfully.