Motivation and rewards
We like to gain something from an effort.
Most of us find rewards motivating. Rewards can be a lot of things, including the appreciation and attention from someone you care about. Other rewards, like gifts, money, pleasure or inclusion into a perceived higher-status-group, can be found outside the family, and delivered without our knowledge.
What we must remember is that the rewarding feeling of feeling good is worth a whole lot more than a reward such as a soon-to-end candybar. We feel good e.g. about new achievements, about received appreciation or the respect of our coworkers. A feeling can last for a long time, in memory. We are more likely to get our children’s minds set right by them wanting to be good, rather than by them wanting a toy or ice cream in exchange for being good.
If you work hard with no positive outcome – perhaps a mistake cost you the appreciation you were looking for – you will remember that as well. The feeling of uselessness, sadness. It will not make you motivated to keep trying. Sometimes no one even notice your work. The feeling of worthlessness may cause you to hope for less next time: try less and you don’t get as disappointed. Or it might lead you to try other ways of getting the attention you seek.
It gets worse if you’re punished for what you’ve done wrong when trying to do it right. It hurts your spirit, your soul, your self esteem. We need to be careful with the use of punishments.
As a general rule, we must make sure to outnumber our corrections with positive remarks.
There are pedagogical methods for child raising in which a kind of scoreboard is held, point systems, with treats and presents to be handed out when the child has collected enough points. For some, this works fine. It’s a system, and it’s better than no system at all. But I don’t like it really.
Here is why:
A couple of parents I know are having reward systems like these. Some kids enjoy toys, others adventures like a funpark or such – when the required points are collected. Trouble is, I’ve heard what their kids tell their friends about the tasks they have:
They do respect the task. It may be to sleep in your own bed or clean up your room. But even if they collect points, they don’t get the point. I’ve heard a child explain that it’s going to be nice after the funland-visit, because then she can go back to sleeping in her parents bed again. And the cleaning is only performed when facing said reward. Not because it feels good to have a clean room, or because you want to make your parents happy.
What are the alternatives?
First of all: Your positive attention, is more rewarding than any pedagogical method. Your time set apart for your child only, your keen interest in his or her life, your support and encouragement. It is what will stay with them as they grow up, remembering the feeling of being Someone Worthy of Attention, of being an Important, Respected Member of the Group.
I want my children to take each step into higher independence because they are ready for it, not because they get a candybar.
Children grow by learning new things, manage new skills, experience new challenges every now and then. Mastering things makes them feel good about themselves. It builds self esteem. So we teach them things, and encourage them to try, and practice.
I want them to try new things feeling safe, that they are allowed to try without being judged. Practicing helps them gaining control of things. I can be their live safety-net and their coach sometimes, but they don’t need my judgment on their skills. Of course they will receive my full appreciation of their efforts, but they shouldn’t need to perform for my sake. They should feel proud about themselves for trying, and later on, for whatever new goal they reach.
Now, before mastering something, the kids often feel inadequate, frustrated, and need all the more support. Perhaps by applauding attempts, telling them it’s a good first step, or by setting up a set of more realistic, achievable goals than the child would do all by itself. And a little help might be necessary. We can help out discretely, or do the whole thing but pretending we need them: carrying the tray while the child, very solemnly, holds on to an edge.
It’s nice to stay in a comfort zone for a while, enjoying the benefits of Being Able. We need to let them rest for a while on every step stone But eventually, it’s time to move on. Usually when the child itself shows interest in proceeding.
Being a team worker
I want them to help out because they want to. Because it feels right. Because it makes them feel included, even important. Toddlers usually like to mimic, to take part. Older kids like to feel that they know stuff, or learn stuff. It’s nice to know, for children as well as parents, that you are important to the family. A Helper. What would they do without you? It’s motivating in it’s own right.
If that don’t work, I’d rather see them help out because it makes me happy. Oh, I get very happy. I like everything about the help given to me: the company, the work relief, the extra time I get to spend playing or reading to said Helper afterwards… I can get grumpy too, if I need to nag a lot. That feels worse. But I try and be happy anyway, when the help is finally coming.
If that don’t work – because I say so and they should respect me. Not because they are frightened to loose their Saturday candy or be punished in any way, but because I claim to know better. I am the boss, because I am the parent, and I have full responsibility for them. I see to interests they don’t know they have yet.
I must see to it, that my decisions are carried out. Sometimes it actually means carrying a less-than-cooperative child, but at least it gets done. Because I said so.
Usually, I’m happy to explain myself (well, at least I try to) and I’m prepared to argue. And yes, I am open to criticism. Sometimes I can change my mind, when facing a good argument. I like to make deliberate choices involving my kids in the deliberation – but I don’t leave it up to them. It wouldn’t be fair to any of us.
Arguing with children
Why, oh why, do I do this to myself? It does get hard sometimes. The answer is: the children earn democratic and respectful treatment. I want my children to learn to argue their point, to take active part in the democratic society we live in. I also want to teach my children respect, by showing them how it’s done. I do respect them, and so I want to listen to their point of view.
I never argue when facing a tantrum though, those storms I have to withstand as firmly and calmly as I can. A No is a No, a Must is a Must. Children must learn to deal with their own disappointments too. I can comfort them in their sadness, redirect their anger towards the closest pillow, but never changing my mind just because they start making trouble.
I also need them to do what I say, once a decision is made. Of course they get disappointed when they don’t get their way, just like any adult would. Only difference is, they express their feelings more. But, this is the fine part, when we discuss things first, we can make win-win decisions sometimes. Or a decision that respects my child’s wish. We can go buy my groceries, and THEN go to the playground. Or we can stay and allow painting for another ten minutes, express our keen interest in the Art, THEN we can go to wherever I thought was important.
Spoiling them anyway, just because I want to
There is also another truth to this: I do reward my kids, even if it’s not a straight-forward reward and certainly not delivered as a “payment”. When they behave really good in a store, maybe I buy a cookie or something and hand them afterwards. A “thank you” snack. But I don’t like the idea of having to bribe them in advance, or all the time.
I also like to spoil them, a little bit, when I can. Not by expensive gifts, but by having a good time together. It’s what counts the most to them anyway. I love to find ways to put a silver lining to the everyday life. So when we can do something they have wished for (like having a pick nick, a breakfast in bed or a little Friday-disco in the living room), we do. It makes them happy, and usually us too. It also proves them the point – we want to have a good time together, and we meet them in their field of interest because we value them and their opinions highly.
What we do will be influenced by the children’s interests (or possible, yet to be discovered interests – we try and open their minds to new experiences every now and then), and limited by our economy, schedules and sometimes the weather. Popular activities can be a visit to the swimming hall, a walk in the park, or to play something they like.
– But we do this when we feel like it. I don’t feel like it, if there have been a lot of nagging lately. They don’t feel like it when they are too tired or stressed out to enjoy it. We must try and find ways to provide the right conditions, and then make it happen.
On the subject of spoiling. I think it’s important for everybody to understand the value of things, and money too. I don’t want to give my children everything they point at, even if I could afford it (I most certainly can not). Okey, I want to, but I usually don’t.
I want them to learn to prioritize, to save up and to earn things. We discuss what things cost and compare them in terms they can understand: the pirate ship may be worth 20 ice creams, or weeks worth of pocket money.
It’s a good idea to teach the children the value of work too. When they are able to do simple shores, or jobs – perhaps walking the dogs of a neighbor or helping mowing the lawn or selling home made cookies – that can pay off with extra pocket money, I think it’s good for them to earn their own money. That’s rewards they can learn from. Being able to save up for something they want, to afford things of their own. It’s something to be proud of too.