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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Rewarding Children

A recent Brain, Child debate has me thinking about the pros and cons of rewarding children. Instead of taking the magazine’s pro/con argument format, I want to make some distinctions about when I think rewards make sense and fit my Quaker values.

Both Brain, Child writers acknowledge that life is not always fair or easy, and that children need to learn to deal with it. I agree, which is why I wouldn’t give my child a treat just for accepting a vaccine or some other discomfort, as one of the writers did. I may sound a little heartless, but I worry my children don’t have enough difficulties in their middle class lives and could do with a bit more character building. If they ever have to face a war or an environmental catastrophe (not to mention more common problems, like car accidents and cancer), I want them to have some experience working through difficulties. The further my children get from diapers, and the closer they get to asking for the car keys, the more I see my job as training responsible adults.

It’s in service of training future adults that I like to use rewards, to encourage children to try some new challenge that I think is worth tackling. If it also teaches delayed gratification, so much the better. Recently we used a reward system to get our son to improve his behavior at school. The teacher said he was doing well academically and held his abundant energy in check most of the time, but in times of transition—on the way to recess or gym class—he was prone to go wild and get other children in trouble in the process. He had to maintain two weeks of excellent behavior, as reported by the teacher, in order to get a book he wanted about how to make paper airplanes. The strategy worked: not only did the teacher report a marked improvement in her classroom, but he seemed to be proud of the fact that he could do better than he thought he could. That to me is the real pay off. Now he knows he can do it. When he headed back to school yesterday after spring break, he joked that he might need another reward in order to keep it up, but he did well without one. I have found in the past that breaking a negative pattern with a short-term reward often has long-term results.

My biggest concern about this sort of thing is the fact that so many rewards in our culture are material: a book, a toy, a piece of candy. Most of the time I try to give rewards that have no carbon cost: compliments, hugs, and smiles. Still, we live in a material culture, and as rewards go I felt pretty good about the paper airplane book (until my son worked through my pile of recycled papers and started making all manner of aircraft from the new paper). For his birthday, my son has started asking for a DS, a PCP, or one of several other electronic devises with initials. I’m good with paper airplanes.

Those of you who followed the Christmas gift controversy should know that my daughter continues to want an iPod Nano. This desire has been so persistent (as have her requests) that my husband and I are taking a new approach. We have told her that she can buy one herself, as long as she earns at least half the money (as opposed to just using the gift money she has in the bank). Every spare minute she has been making friendship bracelets to sell, and last week with a friend, she baked chocolate chip cookies and sold them on the sidewalk to passing travelers. I admire her determination and want to encourage it. I also suspect that when she finally gets the iPod she’ll take better care of it than if she had received it in a box at Christmas.

On the making money theme, we finally started a system of chores and allowance. For years my husband has maintained that giving kids allowance was like paying them to be part of the family. The kids have always had a few light chores, but we are now upping the ante. My daughter is taking over the downstairs vacuuming and a few other jobs that could theoretically lighten my load, if all goes well. They will learn to earn money, keep track of it, and lose it if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain. I think those are reasonable life lessons and the kind of rewards and challenges that I face as an adult.


Blogger ChrEliz said...

I really enjoyed this piece. I clicked over b/c I saw your comment on the Brain,Child blog referencing this essay. I will definitely be checking out the rest of your blog writings, I really like your ideas! My husband and I used to have heated conversations about rewarding kids, back before we ever fully decided to try to have kids! I am going to send him a link to this post; I think you may have just described a way of using rewards that I can live with, and he can too. We'll see. Thanks for posting and for sending me here!

Christine in Charlottesville, VA

6:28 PM  
Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

Very thoughtful post. I agree with everything you've said, although I am certainly not averse to taking my kids out for ice cream after a shot, etc. I tend to give them way too many treats, partly because I have always felt guilty about their daycare lifestyle.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks Christine and LoStar Ma. Ah, guilt a dangerous but common motivation in parenting. Someone should write a post about that!

8:16 AM  
Blogger Chris M. said...

Eileen -- I agree, very nice post. I agree with you, so you must be right! ;)

Robin wrote about children and chores once, called "Slacker Housekeeping.

I love the fact that your daughter is working so hard for what she wants. Good for you for resisting the easy way out.

And Cathy Hunter, the head of San Francisco Friends School, was humorously quoted last fall in a story in the glossy San Francisco magazine that "Kids really just need to suffer more." Specifically, “We need to help kids build up the traits that matter for learning and a fully functioning adulthood—qualities like patience, tenacity, and organization.”

12:52 AM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks, Chris. I liked Robin's post. I should add that Martin Seligman, author of many books and one of the founders of "positive psychology," says that children who do chores turn out to be happier as adults than children who didn't do chores. So there you have it.

7:42 AM  

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