This is a guest post from JT. JT writes about family and financial education and you should read his blog, of JustMakingCents.com.

My 8-year-old daughter, Zuzzy, dribbles to her right in a hunching gallop, like a wounded wildebeest, before she bounces the ball off of her foot.  Moments later, a teammate passes to her.  The ball somehow squeezes through her delicate outstretched arms and rolls onto her face before bouncing onto the hardwood floor.  She freezes, not knowing what to do with the ball drumming at her feet.

On this cold winter morning, I huddle among a cluster of parents.  For my amusement, I tally the amount of hours and cost of private coaching it would take for her to make the Stanford team.  

Picture this: Fresh off an academic all-American season at Stanford, she’s ready to start her internship at Snapchat before starting up her own multi-billion dollar business.

What a dream. Who wouldn’t want this for their children?  

Me.

Why Not?

You’ve heard of the saying, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”  But did you know that what fuels your drive to keep up with these Joneses is something called the Relative Income Hypothesis?  The Relative Income Hypothesis states that your spending and happiness is based on your ranking relative to others. The Harvard economist who developed the theory, Dr. James Duesenberry, says “strong tendencies exist in our society for people to emulate their neighbors and to strive toward a higher standard of living.”

In other words, we’d really rather have status than wealth. For example, we would rather make $50,000 if those around us make $25,000 than $100,000 if others around us make $200,000.  The Relative Income Hypothesis manifests in the car you drive, the house you live in, the bags you carry.

And your children.

Turns out that you’re not just keeping up with the Joneses, but Jones Jr. as well.  We see this in the dizzying number of activities in which we enroll our children to make sure they’re not missing out.  We feel it when they don’t bring home a trophy while our friends did.  

Loss of Ambition or Lost Ambition?

Is it wrong to want our children to succeed?  Not at all. I have very high hopes for and expectations of my 3 children. The issue is not ambition but the owner of that ambition.

When we expect our children to keep up with (or exceed) our neighbor’s children, it often ends in disappointment because these expectations many times are rooted in our ego and insecurity, which are hard to satisfy.  

If our children never take ownership of their ambition, they shift their desire for success from one that is self-motivated to one that is parent-pleasing or a feeling of what they’re supposed to do.  They are so focused on achieving for you that they don’t ask themselves important questions, like if this is the life they envision.  It’s no wonder why so many kids who have much can feel empty.  In The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine writes that:

“In spite of parental concern and economic advantage, many of my adolescent patients suffer from readily apparent emotional disorders: addictions, anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders and assorted self-destructive behaviors.”

We want the best for our children, but the way we go about it might not produce the best outcome. As you can see, this top down motivation isn’t sustainable or desirable. Instead, I believe in fostering a strong internal motivation.

6 Tips to Help Develop Strong Internal Motivation:

  1. Bottoms Up Approach:  Figure out who they are and their talents.  Dr. Mary Reckmeyer, author of the book Strengths Based Parenting: Developing Your Children’s Innate Talents, says “Innate talents—those behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that come naturally to you—don’t change much over time.”  In other words, from a talents perspective, your children are pretty much who they will be. What are your children drawn to and what do they pick up easily?  Encourage achievement in those areas. One important benefit of a bottoms up approach is that it encourages you to spend meaningful time engaging with your children. 
  1. Shift the Focus From Winning to Process: Often times, whether they win or lose is not within their ultimate control, but what they can control is their process.  Process develops the muscles of sustained hard work, persistence, and love of learning, which just also happen to be good foundations for success in whatever endeavor they choose.  

(Struggling with perfectionism as a parent? Me too. Here’s how I’m dealing with it.)

  1. Let Them Fail or Lose: If their recital stinks because they didn’t practice enough, allow them to feel the sting of consequences and respond to it. Bailing them out by doing the work for them gives them an unnecessary parachute — falling is one of life’s most important lessons.  I’ve found that nagging and “I told you so” type messages to be counterproductive. Once the emotion of the moment has passed, the learning happens when we ask, “Why did it go not as well as you wanted? What can you do better next time?”
  1. Let Them Be Bored:  Some researchers find that too many scheduled activities may be detrimental to our children’s development, reducing their ability to be self-directed. Boredom is like that long, uncomfortable pause in conversation. Someone will find a way to break it. Boredom has produced some of the most fun and funniest times with my children as they’ve been forced to figure out how to entertain themselves.  They’ve set up plays, written interesting books, or composed silly songs (I’ve ruined many home videos by chuckling too loudly through their plays).
  1. Let Them Solve Their Simple Problems: “I’m cold, daddy,” or “What’s for breakfast?”  You’ve heard this from your children before. Once they turned six, my response was: “You can make yourself warm,” or “You can make your own breakfast.”  So now, my children will go put on a sweater when they’re cold or make themselves a bowl of cereal, yogurt, or even scrambled eggs (I supervise this last one). My message to them?  They’re more capable than they think they are.  The response?  They’ve gained confidence in their abilities. Sometimes Zuzzy will be the first one awake and prepare a special breakfast for her two siblings.
  1. Teach Them Personal Finance:  I know what you’re thinking. But if you teach them personal finance, even if they do turn out to be artists, they won’t starve.  Personal finance teaches the practical so that they can make better choices about their career.  It complements their passions.  And if they learn how to make money and invest while they’re young, they will have options we all wish we could have had.  Another thing: if your children learn how to earn their own money and how to spend and invest it, it reduces the cost of raising them, leaving you more money for your own retirement.

(Want to teach your child how to make money in an hour with less than $20? Start here.  Sign up and get a free guide in helping your child start his or her first business in a snap!)

You’ll never teach your children everything they’ll need to know in their regular or financial life. But if up you equip them with strong internal motivation, chances are they’ll succeed in both.

A Secret:

You love your Louis Vuitton until your friend meets you for brunch clutching a Chanel bag. Your Lexus brings you joy until your neighbor’s garage reveals a new Range Rover.  One child’s best effort is another’s off day.  One child’s dream school is another’s backup.  We know this ugly feeling when our pride is wounded.

But children mustn’t be handbags that are paraded around as signs of achievement.  Our affection for our children shouldn’t be circumstantial. Instead, our love should be steady while raising them with the internal motivation they need to be successful, whatever their path.

We understand the power of strong internal motivation in our own lives.  As financial bloggers, Kristin and I will let you in on a secret: It is never about the knowledge. Personal finance is mostly very simple. Rather, it is a strong internal motivation that determines whether you make that budget and stick to it.

I don’t want my children to be the best.  I want them to want to be the best they can be.


The coach asks the fifty or so girls to line up in two lines facing each other.  He challenges the girls to pass the ball to the player across from them, then diagonally to the next girl, like a zig-zag, all the way to the last player without the ball touching the ground. Three-quarters of the way through, the ball is still in play and each pass takes on more importance. The girls on the left side start jumping up and down while watching the few remaining players pass. Zuzzy successfully catches the ball, then passes it to the girl across from her. The ball shoots from her hands limply, rolling to the intended player.  All fifty girls and the 5 coaches groan.

I just laugh with joy.

For more of JT’s writing, check out his blog, of JustMakingCents.com.

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Want to guest post for my blog? Email me! Kristin@kristinwong.com