Should Kids Work Like Adults, Or Should Adults Play Like Kids?

In Drive, Daniel Pink claims workers will be more productive if they get intrinsic, not extrinsic, rewards. In other words, they need to integrate play into their work.

Kids’ lives are fun. They play.

Adults’ lives are serious. We work. We have responsibilities.

Many psychologists and psychiatrists question this widely-held dichotomy. They think that kids should play a lot and continue to play into adulthood.

They claim that the most likely path toward a successful, happy life – a life in which one can have his cake and eat it too – is guided by intrinsic motivation. You may have heard of the concept of euphoric “flow” experiences. These are intense moments of intrinsic motivation applied toward a goal, and they combine extreme happiness with great accomplishment. See the book Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.

People who are intrinsically motivated do things because they want to, not because someone else expects them to. In general, they accomplish more than people who are motivated by external forces (like bosses and parents and rules), and they’re healthier and happier. In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink writes about how employers can get the most out of their employees by finding ways to motivate them intrinsically.

When children play freely, they are manifesting intrinsic motivation in its purest form. According to psychiatrist Peter Gray, “activity oriented toward intrinsic goals, almost by definition, is play.” Children do exactly what they want to do and learn a lot, and they have a great deal of fun in the process. By playing freely, the book Flow states, children “acquire the skills and attitudes required for successful adulthood.”

So, it seems, we should be encouraging adults to be more like kids, to be more playful. Instead, we’ve been encouraging kids to be more like adults, foisting responsibilities and stress on them. Researcher Jean Twenge finds that children are experiencing significantly more emotional problems than did children of decades ago, and she attributes this trend to a change in childhood from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic motivation.

Another wide-ranging study of children’s emotional problems concludes, “Approximately one in every four to five youth in the U.S. meets criteria for a mental disorder with severe impairment across their lifetime.”

“Severe impairment across their lifetime.” “One in every four or five.” Wow…

What the hell are we doing to our kids? Pink and Csikszentmihaly say adults need to be more childlike, more intrinsically motivated, to be more successful and happy. Twenge and others say kids are depressed in unprecedented numbers because they’re not intrinsically motivated enough.

We need more childish play from childhood through to adulthood. Childhood should be the foundation for adulthood, not the other way around.

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