Last Sunday afternoon, my son George was struggling with sickness, thrashing and crying on the couch. In a Steve Martin moment straight out of the movie “Parenthood,” I picked him up, sat him on my lap, and asked him if he was going to throw up. He promptly unloaded his stomach’s contents into my lap, covering him, me, the couch, and the floor with chunky, red bile. Where did I go wrong? Why couldn’t I have prevented that disaster?
I’m a Monday morning quarterback, always examining my actions, their results, and trying to improve. As someone who has a strong internal locus of control (i.e. I believe I control ALL the events of my life), parenting has proven to be the greatest challenge of my life. I simply cannot control those unpredictable little buggers! I love my progeny, sure, but I can only begin to comprehend the mysteries that are Henry, Lucy, and George.
I’m sure I’m not alone. Students with a strong internal locus of control are usually successful at school due to high motivation. Our schools are filled with teachers and administrators who were successful at school so it’s safe to assume that many also share that strong internal locus of control. They believe they can have an impact on students. And thus they struggle with understanding students without motivation.
Students with external loci of control believe that forces outside of themselves have a greater impact on their lives than their efforts. So they are less likely to apply themselves in school because they don’t see the point.
The challenge of parenting for me is realizing that external forces are shaping my children’s actions and there’s very little I can do about it. There’s no one to blame! I can try to control what I can: how much time I spend with them, how I spend that time, etc. But ultimately, I have to accept that I alone cannot shape their personalities, intelligence, behavior, motivation, and success. In other words, I have to accept a level of external control in my life.
Simon Sinek in his TED talk posits that most enterprises fail because of three reasons: 1. Money (i.e. not enough resources), 2. People (i.e. unmotivated people not pulling their weight), and 3. Unwelcome market conditions. Sinek maintains that we attribute failures to reasons beyond our control (external), perhaps to save our own vision of ourselves as controllers of our fate.
I hear the same attributions from pastors, advisory council members, principals, and teachers. “There’s not enough money,” they say. Or “our teachers/students/parents aren’t motivated.” Or I’ll hear “it doesn’t look possible to grow our enrollment.” These internally motivated people rail against external factors.
And then there’s Sr. Helen Durso, OP, from St. Paul’s Mission School. The Mission School struggles to pay its bills every month. Money is very scarce! Sr. Helen asks God to keep the school open, asks Him to bless the school, and then leaves it in God’s hands. She is doing her part (internal locus of control) but acknowledging that there are external factors that she can’t control.
She is doing her best every day to love and challenge the students in her care, not letting the external forces derail her in her mission. We are all challenged to accept a level of external control in our personal and professional lives.