Strategic storytelling: UVA prof says parents can help children edit life’s narratives

UVA psychology prof Tim Wilson says parents can help alter their kids' stories—even when it comes to eating veggies. Photo: Christian Hommel UVA psychology prof Tim Wilson says parents can help alter their kids’ stories—even when it comes to eating veggies. Photo: Christian Hommel

What story do your kids tell themselves about why they do the things they do? It’s a question that’s critical for children’s wellbeing, according to UVA psychology professor Tim Wilson.

Wilson, a social psychologist, says people can improve their lives by controlling and editing their internal narrative. For example, if a new college student tanks his first exam, he can come to believe he isn’t college material, or he can decide he has the ability to succeed and simply needs to work harder.

Children too are constantly interpreting life’s events and inventing stories about why and how they happened. This is a central tenant of social psychology, according to Wilson, and not that controversial. Where things get a little more radical is in Wilson’s belief that parents can alter their kids’ storytelling in helpful ways.

“The technical term is ‘minimally sufficient rewards and punishments,’” Wilson said. “You want to use just enough to get them to do it, but not enough to make them realize that’s why they are doing it. You don’t always get it right.”

If you do get it right, your kids will come away from the exercise with a story about intrinsic motivation. “I ate those peas because I like peas,” for example, instead of “I only ate those peas so I could get dessert after dinner.” The hard part is finding the right motivators, Wilson admits.

He offers the example of the Pizza Hut Book It! Program, in which kids are treated to a personal pan pizza for completing a certain amount of reading. It’s been around for nearly 30 years, and there’s some evidence it’s been successful, but does it really bring about a love of reading? Or are the kids just doing it for the pizza?

“I’ve seen some students give back their [Book It!] reward,” said Mia Shand, a fifth grade teacher at Agnor Hurt Elementary School. “Getting kids motivated to learn is about making a connection. If you respect them for their individuality, they can see that.”

Shand has found computer games with immediate rewards like “badges” to be more effective motivators for many of her students. She figures she’s developed a handful of Civil War buffs through the game Minecraft.

But are the kids really buffs? Once the game runs its course and the students have learned everything they can from Minecraft, will they seek more info on the Confederacy and Union?

“If they are given feedback based on how well they are doing, the research suggests it can be beneficial,” Wilson said. “But it is a tricky business. There is a danger that they may just enjoy learning about the topic in those contexts.”

Whatever the reward for a desired behavior, Wilson said it’s best for parents to go over-the-top at first. Once the behavior is in line, you can scale back. Which means more peas, and less dessert.