Archive for Saturday, August 16, 2003

Rewards can effectively motivate children

August 16, 2003


Isn't a mother manipulating her child by using rewards and punishment to get him to do what she wants?

No more than a factory supervisor manipulates his employees by docking their pay if they arrive late. No more than a police officer manipulates a speeding driver by giving him a traffic ticket. No more than an insurance company manipulates that same driver by increasing his premium. No more than the IRS manipulates a taxpayer who files his return one day late by charging a penalty for his tardiness. The word "manipulation" implies a sinister or selfish motive of the one in charge. I don't agree.

When would you not recommend the use of rewards?

Rewards should never be used as a "payoff" to a child for not disobeying. That becomes a bribe -- a substitute for authority. For example, Mom is having trouble controlling her 3-year-old in a supermarket. "Come here, Pamela," she says, but the youngster screams "No!" and runs the other way. Then in exasperation, Mom offers Pam a lollipop if she'll come quickly. Rather than rewarding obedience, Mom has actually reinforced the child's defiance.

Another misuse of rewards is to pay a child for doing the routine jobs that are his responsibility as a member of the family. Taking out the trash and making his bed might be included in those regular duties. But when he is asked to spend half his Saturday cleaning the garage or weeding the garden, it seems very appropriate to make it worth his time.

I worry about putting undue emphasis on materialism with my kids. Do rewards have to be in the form of money or toys?

Certainly not. A word of praise is a great enticement to some children. An interesting snack can also get their attention, although that has its downside. When my daughter was 3 years old, I began to teach her some early-reading skills, including the alphabet. By planning the training sessions to occur after dinner each evening, bits of chocolate candy provided the chief source of motivation. (I was less concerned about the effects of excess sugar consumption in those days than I am now.)

Late one afternoon, I was sitting on the floor quizzing her on several new letters when a tremendous crash shook the neighborhood. The whole family rushed outside to see what had happened. A teenager had overturned his car on our quiet residential street. He was not badly hurt, but his automobile was a mess. We sprayed the smoldering car with water and called the police. It was not until the excitement passed that we realized our daughter had not followed us out of the house. I returned to the den where I found her elbow-deep in the large bag of candy I had left behind. She must have put a half-pound of chocolate in her mouth, and most of the remainder was distributed around her chin, nose and forehead. When she saw me coming, she managed to jam another handful into her chipmunk cheeks. From this experience, I learned one of the limitations of using material, or at least edible, rewards.

Anything the child wants can be used as reinforcement, from praise to pizza to playtime.

What would you do if you had an elementary school child in a chaotic classroom with a disorganized teacher?

I would do everything I could to get my child reassigned to a different classroom. Some very bad habits and attitudes can develop in 10 months with an incompetent teacher. Home schooling or private education might also be considered, if resources permit.

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