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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Of Tournaments, Teenagers and Turtles
August 12, 2010 - 6:58pm

There is a concept in economics called a “tournament”. It notices that one way to motivate people to do something that you want them to do is to set up a tournament by setting out a goal that many people are willing to work for, and then encourage them to behave in a way that you desire in order to achieve that goal. The tenure process comes to mind immediately when I think of such tournaments, for the tenure process gives us a goal to work for, and in the process we align our behavior with that desired by the university. Other such tournaments might be found in law practices and even in some schools. I have, however, had teachers of young children tell me that one should NEVER reward children for doing what they are supposed to do, that such good behavior should be its own reward. I am not sure what to make of that last line of thought, since I admit to using rewards to motivate my daughter from time to time.

When I think of such tournaments, I am reminded of one that I realize I participated in when I was in high school. I was in a program called “Junior Achievement”, or “J.A.”. At that time, J.A. involved high school students running their own companies and included a large social element that focused on conferences at the local, regional and national level. Since I was a bookworm, these events provided me with an opportunity to have a social life that I would not otherwise have had.

In those days, the national conference, known as “NAJAC”, was held at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. To be selected to attend from my town, one needed to win some sort of local award, and it helped if one also worked hard on the local council that put on dances and parties. Once I decided that I would like to attend the conference, I became very focused and involved in my local area program. I ironically exhibited the concept of “impure altruism” as I, in an effort to win this tournament, offered my time to the organization as a “volunteer”, illustrating the concept that became central to my doctoral dissertation years later. My first year of attending that conference began 30 years ago this coming week, the week of August 17th, 1980. The theme of that conference was “Meeting the Challenge of the 80s”. I laugh now, and wonder what we thought those challenges were.

When my father-in-law found out I had been to NAJAC, his eyes lit up as he ran to the basement to pull out his (45 year old) panoramic photo from the year he, too, attended the conference. My mother-in-law rolled her eyes and noted that there were many things in the house that he could not find so quickly. I assured her that I knew exactly where my own photos were in my parent’s home several states away. Some things are just not so easily misplaced.

The conference at the time included about 3,000 teenagers, and tournaments were used broadly at the conference to help keep those students in line. There were contests for many things, from awards for officers of the year to contests for “best group”, all of which encouraged students to act in appropriate ways in the midst of a sea of youthful energy and hormones. This worked most of the time, but there were some aspects of the conference that could not be contained. I recall one silly question that was asked often, requiring a response that is most politely given in the letters, “Y.B.Y.S.A.I.A.”, since it contains a word on the list of “words we don’t say in our house.”

My successful efforts to attend and succeed at NAJAC proved to me that I could win at such tournaments, a reservoir of confidence that I drew upon when I realized that I would need to start the tenure tournament over at another college, where I was finally successful. My time in J.A. also encouraged me to explore economics, a subject that was not taught in our high school but which became the area of study for my undergraduate major and my Ph.D. Was NAJAC the best week of my life, as it was often described? No, but those weeks WERE really fun.

To anyone who had a role in running or funding Junior Achievement of the late 70s and early 80s, thank you for helping me to find my lifelong love of economics, and for giving me some amazing memories in might otherwise have been teenage years spent alone with books.

All this leaves me with the question that I began with. Is it really so wrong to use incentives to guide children to the right path, or are such incentives an insult to their ability to be intrinsically motivated? I know that intrinsic motivation is important in graduate school and in much of adult life, but I know that my own child responds best to goals and incentives. I would love to hear what others have to say.

And if there are any former delegates out there, I leave you with a RHETORICAL question (please don’t post the full answer- this is a classy publication): Are You a Turtle?


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