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Free to Be You and Me, an album by Marlo Thomas and Friends, 1972

Some decades ago Marlo Thomas and her friends recorded an album to help children learn about discarding sexual stereotypes. NFL player Rosey Grier sang, “It’s alright to cry.” Kids could listen to the Greek legend about Atalanta outsmarting her suitors. Carol Channing did a special piece in which she explained that no one likes chores, “not your mommy or your daddy…not even the lady on TV who smiles while she cleans the toilet bowl. She’s an actress and she’s paid to smile while she cleans because no one likes chores and when you grow up, you won’t either!”

You may take issue with some of that message but I have to confess that as I taught my kids to do chores, occasionally hounded them to do chores, I heard her words echoing: no one likes chores. I wanted to add, “We’re not doing this because we like to do it; we’re doing it because we like it done!’ (…so quit whining and take out the trash!)

To tell the truth, I’d always taken for granted the age-old parent/kid back and forth, “do your chore – I don’t want to – do it anyway…now!” I just thought it was what all kids did on their way to becoming responsible (read: chore-doing) adults. Then I met two siblings, young adults in their early twenties, who had tragically lost their parents. Fortunately, they inherited a reasonable estate, at least enough to be well provided for until their college educations were completed. They came to me because they wanted to learn to “be adults.” Asked to clarify what that meant, they replied, ”You know, pay bills on time; buy insurance; cook for ourselves; clean our apartment; see the doctor or dentist when we need to; plan/take/pay for a vacation; balance our bank accounts. You know, just a regular adult life!” Given the clarity of their goal, their willingness to go for it, time/money enough to provide some “learning slack,” I felt confident that coaching could get them where they wanted to go.

After a very long while and a number of approaches and adaptations, plans and revised plans, we gave up. It seemed they had one HUGE stumbling block in the way: they simply could not get themselves to do something they didn’t want to do. Their inability set me on a path of contemplation which has resulted in years of questioning, observation and notation.

How do we_ when do we learn to get ourselves to persist
when we’d really rather not…not as a function of someone
telling us to do it but doing it for ourselves?

Think Gottas and Wannas

We typically see our kids come to grips with this in middle school. They really want to keep playing, living the life of a child. At the same time, the work load is cranking up; adults’ expectations are rising (think teacher, coaches, scout master)…and, did you notice, work isn’t fun! A Peter Pan-ish tune warms up: I don’t want to grow…not me!

Right about then is an excellent time to help your kids learn about Gottas and Wannas, those things we’ve got to do and those things we want to do. Most adults have figured out that for life to go well, it’s usually a good idea to take care of the Gottas before indulging in the Wannas…though it’s common to watch high school and college kids trying to fudge on this, sometimes successfully. If our young teens voiced their innermost inclinations, it might sound like, “But I don’t WANT to!” At that moment, it’s your cue to repeat Carol Channing’s insight, “Yes, I understand. Nobody likes chores. Do it anyway.”

My sibling coaching-clients also provided me with another insight: most adults have figured a way to give themselves incentives/prizes/rewards for continuing to do an unpleasant task. Of course, some completed tasks are inherently pleasing: changing a baby’s poopy diaper has a fragrant reward. More often, we have to look for or even create a reward. I knew a kid was on the right path when he told me he’d made a deal with himself: he wanted to go to his girlfriend’s volleyball game but had important homework to read. The deal he made with himself was that if he’d reached a certain page in his reading, he could go…if not, no deal. As it turned out, he arrived at something of a compromise: it took him longer than anticipated to complete the reading but when at last he did, he arrived at her game a bit late…but happily (and productively) self-managing!

What incentives/prizes/rewards do you use on yourself
when you need a boost in motivation or persistence?

In my husband’s home, when he was a kid, their mom required them to finish their homework before they could go out and play baseball. “Do your Gottas before you do your Wannas,” she might have said. These days with team sports and after school activities, we may need to revise our scheme a bit but the base wisdom remains: work first, play second. Its corollary is the sooner you get your work done, the more time you’ll have to enjoy your play.

This is a really, REALLY important concept for young teens to learn. As I witnessed with the siblings, the inability to hold yourself to task can undo everything, anything. Talent, intelligence, athletic prowess, money, good looks, a kind heart…none can help a kid through life if they are unable to get themselves to bring it (consistently) to the table, to the work at hand. Learning that they can count on themselves is critical to the launch of a young adult.

This is worthy of a dinner conversation in which you might want to share thoughts with your kids (and them with you) on:

  • What are some of your Gottas? Some of your Wannas?
  • When you have an icky task, how do you get yourself to do it?
  • When was the last time you rewarded yourself for a job done, and what was your reward?
  • Is there a task each of us has been trying to wrangle that we want to experiment with, setting a goal, a timeline to completion, and a prize for when we do it?

We’ll break that process down more in the next blog.
Good luck with Gottas and Wannas…
And please, let me know how it goes!