“What’s Your Motivation?” Pursuing Excellence without Pride

My over-achieving, first-born, all-honors 6th-grader made a ‘B’ in math, and she didn’t like it. (Not bragging, just trying to give you a picture of the situation.) I was not upset. But then—and this is the funny part—she got angry with me for not being more bothered. After a few minutes of back-and-forth that included the classic “Did you do your best?” line on my side, she said, “I just wish you would push me harder to get good grades.”

In that moment, it would have been easy to spurt out a line from our self-centered culture or practice some of the blame-shifting that’s so common these days.

Instead, I sat back down in my chair and paused for a moment. Looking up at her (because, even then, she was quite tall), I voiced the dilemma that had been eroding its own little gully in my mind since she started Kindergarten: “I don’t know how.” How do I motivate my child…first-born or baby, Type-A or slacker…to do her absolute best, her most excellent work, without drawing upon her pride?

It’s been a couple of years since that scene played out in our kitchen, and I still don’t have a pat answer. Even if I did, every child is different, so my step-by-step solution might not work for your child. I do, however, have three Biblical principles that we discuss (randomly but frequently) to address this issue of motivation, especially as it relates to school. I believe they apply to every Christ-centered family.

One note first: As my children have matured (physically and spiritually), these principles have become easier for them to internalize, so if your children are early-elementary-age, you may need to simplify…and be patient. Don’t fall back into the rutted route of pride-based motivation!

Like a good singing voice or basketball talent, intelligence is a gift from God.

It may not be politically correct to say it, but some people are just smarter than others (speaking in the generic sense of ‘smart.’ See this post for what I really think of the term, ‘smart.’) God gives gifts for His glory and humanity’s good. If we waste our talents, we disrespect God and loose our chance to help the world.

His Glory: Remember the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)?* God expects a return on His investment. The talent He gives us should, in turn, bring Him glory.

Humanity’s good: Speaking of gifts within the church, Paul said they were given so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4:12), not for our own glory. It’s not too far of a reach, especially in light of Scripture as a whole, to expect all of our gifts/talents to be used for the good of others rather than for our own benefit.

In this way, my child must put her gift to work not for her own good but for the good of the world and the Kingdom of God.

God is glorified by our excellence.

grades close-up
(c) Carole Sparks

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). You need to be careful on this one because some of those high-achievers think actual perfection is a reasonable goal for their educational careers. Romans 3:23 will bring them down a notch, if necessary! God’s standards, however, far exceed any goals we might set for ourselves. At the same time, we cannot fully achieve those standards this side of Heaven. For the time being, let’s leave the perfection to Jesus even as we pattern our lives after His. This means we’re called to perfection and simultaneously called to accept that we can’t get there. Otherwise, show your children that ‘perfect’ sometimes means ‘complete’ or ‘finished’ (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:9, James 2:22 in various versions).

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (Genesis 1:31). When God created the world, He daily declared His creation to be good. He didn’t create anything half-heartedly or without paying attention to what He was doing. When He was finished, He sat back, took a look at what He had created, and said, “I did this well.” We call it the satisfaction of a job well done. Let your children see you satisfied with your work—if it’s a clean kitchen, a beautiful building, or a computer program. Encourage them when they complete something, and let them know it’s okay to enjoy that completion. Maybe it’s just my own Type-A personality, but a page of math homework with no mistakes is a beautiful thing. Our children can come to see it that way as well.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15; if you really want to use the word ‘study’ here, you’ll have to go back to KJV or the Geneva Bible.). I know Paul’s admonishment to Timothy has a context unlike your child’s or my child’s, but the principle of working to do your best and handle information properly applies to all of us. The application (or the prayer) for your child might go something like this: “Do your best to get the approval of God, your teachers, and your parents as a student who doesn’t need to be ashamed (due to anything lacking in your effort) and who correctly handles all the information he receives.” As I write this today, the Lord is convicting me to pray this verse over my children regularly!

Finally, just to keep everything in balance, remember that moral excellence is most important to God (Philippians 4:8).

We are called to do our best.

Excellence—especially in an educational setting—is going to look different on different people. For each person, we ask, “Have you done your best?” or “Have you given 100% to this task?” Paul told the Ephesian church (6:7-8), Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do…. I don’t know when my child has done her best, but she knows, and God knows. That is her ultimate accountability.

After I confessed that I didn’t know how to motivate her in a healthy, God-honoring way, my 6th-grader and I talked through some of these things. (I’m sure the conversation was far less organized than what I’ve written here.) I reassured her that making a ‘B’ in 6th grade was not going to diminish her chances of getting into a good college, that no one loved her any less because of it, and that I was sure she would bounce back to her usual ‘A’ in the next grading period. I’m choosing to hold grades loosely and formal education loosely and many other things loosely in favor of raising a child who clings to God tightly.

What about you? How do you motivate your children to do their best…in anything, not just school? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

*Endnote: Our English word, talent, comes from this parable in which a talent was a “unit of coinage” worth about 20 years of day wages. (NIV Study Bible textual note and study note for Matthew 25:15.) That’s a lot of money!