I have been thinking a bit about how good it is to develop a mostly internal locus of control, and also about what a challenge that is to human beings. From a very young age, as soon as we are affected by the responses of the adults in our lives, we are being trained to focus outward. We gain or lose approval, validation, and receive rewards or punishment, based on how others react to us.
If we are fortunate, our caregivers taught us to pay attention to our own sensibilities, curiosities, and feelings, while simultaneously guiding and socializing us to grow into decent, productive, adults. I think it so easy to focus too heavily on the latter job, as it has a much clearer set of “rules”. Be polite, get good grades, join the team, do the things that get you accolades or acceptance or a better resume. And that is all good! But nothing trumps an inner drive, and personal satisfaction, and no one can tell us exactly what that looks like; it is different for everyone.
One day, way back in high school, our teacher assigned us an essay to write in class. I forget what the topic was but he collected them well before the class ended. I actually opted to take a lower grade by keeping my paper a little longer to finish it. In that moment, an incomplete story felt all wrong to me. I really wanted to finish the essay, so I accepted the lowered grade. Foolish? Perhaps. But in that instance, my own satisfaction meant more to me than a grade, and I accepted the consequence.
We want kids to do what is expected of them by their parents, school, society. In many ways, it will serve them well. But hopefully we want them to follow their internal compass even more. Often the two-external and internal focus-are at odds.
What does this look like? Maybe a teen decides that getting an A on an assignment is less important than getting a full night’s rest, or taking some time to work on his own project. So, he accepts the B- and is able to feel confident about his choice. He is figuring out that life is about much more than external accolades. And yet who do we praise? We praise the kid who came to school sick, stayed up late to go above and beyond, resisted his own interests, and got the A. Hard work is admirable. But so is self-care, independence, and creativity. We each choose our own values.
Life is a series of choices, and each one has some consequence, however small. We can’t tell another human being which outcome has the best payoff, the most desirable results for them in each circumstance. But we can remind them that they know, if they will take a moment, a lifetime, to turn inward and trust themselves.