March 7, 2016

Bribe vs. Earned Reward

How do you encourage a child to make the right decisions? Some parents are fond of using the carrot, and some seem to prefer the stick. I'm not going to touch on the "war" surrounding which "stick" measures are preferred or even allowable. Instead, today I want to look at the different methods of "carrot" one can employ.

Goal oriented, Sneak's never been afraid to work for what she wants.

When is a reward a bribe, and when is it something that's been earned? I think this is an important distinction when the goal is teaching your child a work ethic and intrinsic motivation. After all, when you break it down, what's a paycheck but a reward earned through a set period of work?

As you might suspect from this topic, we've entered that first wave of waning motivation in school. The new has worn off, and the novelty of "acting like big kids" is no longer enough to get the girls excited about school. Now, they don't have problems with their main lessons. Those change enough from day to day to remain interesting. It's the more repetitive, rote learning and skill building exercises we have the girls do to cope with issues arising from dyslexia and dysgraphia causing the issue. 

Writing words five times each, every day is boring and repetitive in the extreme, but it's also the most effective way they have of learning how to spell. Writing out times tables and the simple addition and subtraction facts you use to solve more complicated problems helps cement those figures in their memory. Boring and repetitive, but effective learning tools they need but don't like to do, are causing strife in our school days lately.

Boo Bear has realized whining about these tasks won't get her out of doing them, but Sneak is still holding out a sliver of hope on that front. So Sneak tries to whine and complain about how long her other lessons took to try and get out of the writing, which just ends up wasting her time and mine. While Boo Bear doesn't try to wheedle her way out of the writing exercises anymore, she gets distracted much more easily when bored, so she ends up taking two or three times longer than necessary to finish.

Boo Bear writing vocabulary words in first grade.

Over the years, I've tried various methods to keep them motivated to complete these exercises as we progress through their vocabulary lists. The one I've found most effective has been positive reinforcement. At first, the reward had to be almost immediate, but after a couple years now, I can make it a weekly thing.

I felt horrible doing this for a long time. We're taught that bribing our kids is an almost guaranteed way to spoil them, and that's what it felt like I was doing. However, in explaining why learning certain things is important, the answer invariably involves being able to function as an adult, specifically finding and holding a job. Why do we need jobs? So we can earn money to live on. What is that paycheck but an earned reward? That's when it dawned on me that there's a difference between bribing your child and giving them something they can earn through working with good behavior.

Let's face it, no matter how good a worker you are, if you spend all day complaining about your job or daydreaming, you aren't going to keep it for long. I don't think I've ever seen a boss tell an employee, "I'll buy you lunch if you'll just shut up and do your work." So doing something similar with your child when they're past the toddler stage and have developed some modicum of self-control and sense of the future seems like encouraging bad habits.

Yet, when you rephrase the message, it begins to sound more like what they will experience as adults. "Finish your work on time, without complaining or doing sloppy work, and you can earn (insert reward here)."

That's more like what is expected of employees, right?

Sneak actually likes doing work, so long as she can earn something for it, even just a sticker.

Now, this has to be adjusted to be age appropriate, of course. Preschoolers and kindergarteners might need daily rewards for completing their lessons and a couple small chores without throwing tantrums. Slightly older kids can go a couple of days doing their work without whining, handle a couple more chores, and further control their behavior. By the time they reach upper elementary, working toward a somewhat bigger weekly reward is possible.

Instead of an almost instant reward for stopping bad behavior like a bribe, it encourages them to think about their behavior going forward to earn a delayed reward. When they forget, and they will, a simple reminder can make a huge difference.

*   *   *   *   *   *
Child begins whining.

Parent: "You've been doing so well. Is whining about (insert whatever it is here) worth losing (enter expected earned reward here)?"

Child shakes their head.

Parent: "Then why don't you (insert suggested or needed behavior here)?"
*   *   *   *   *   *

Learning patience is hard, and living in an instant gratification world as we do now, it's only getting harder. Developing self-control is hard, and seeing so many being rewarded for a lack of self-control in today's media is making it seem like a less desirable thing to do. Yet self-control and patience are still essential skills! As parents, it's our responsibility to teach our children those skills as much as it is to make sure they have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.

Sometimes we need a refresher ourselves when the going gets tough. These harder lessons take years to teach. You'll need patience with them and yourself along the way. 

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