Six Children and No Theories

Covering parenting and child development issues

What Will You Give Me if I Do?

Written by Lisa Lawmaster Hess, Community Blogger | Sep 7, 2013 10:47 AM

"The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

This semester, I'm teaching early childhood development to college students. Most of them are studying to be teachers, formulating their educational philosophies as they aspire to classrooms of their own. Despite the state of education, the threats to pensions, the bad press and the politics -- which are enough to drive veteran teachers out of the profession -- these optimistic young people, like their predecessors, just want to teach. 

Last week, we were discussing classical conditioning, the theory that underlies the reward and punishment systems in the behaviorist philosophy. Some of my students were drawn to behaviorism, while others hated it, equating reinforcement with bribery, and/or taking offense at the implicit connection between young children and salivating dogs.

As I listened to them, and later, read their papers, I wondered if their perspective would change. Were they driven by a youthful optimism that children would always do what we expected of them, with no need for any concession on the part of the adults? Did they fear that one promise led to many more, so they preferred not to even approach the slippery slope where giving a sticker for good behavior led to giving a teenager an iPod for completing his homework?

As parents, we know it's not that simple. Like my students (and many former colleagues), I have a hard time rewarding a child for doing something that's an expected behavior.

But a large part of parenting is negotiation, especially as our kids get older and declare their independence. And while it's relatively easy (if not always our best option) to wrestle a screaming toddler into a car seat, it's impossible to wrest a school phobic teen from beneath the warmth. comfort and security of his covers.

My students raised that very question in class. If we use material reinforcements with our kids when they are small, what do we do when they are teenagers? And at what point does an incentive become a bribe?

I remember reading somewhere that an incentive is given before the fact (if you clean your room, I will give you a dollar), while a reward is given after the fact (you did such a good job cleaning your room that I'd like to give you a dollar). An incentive (or a bribe, depending upon your mindset) muddies the motivational waters - is the child doing the task because he knows he should, or is he doing it for the dollar?

A former colleague of mine swore by the use of incentives in his classroom, declaring that as adults, we do things - at least in part - for the reward (or to avoid the punishment) at the end. We drive the speed limit to avoid getting a ticket. We work at our jobs to collect the paycheck at the end of the week. Many undesirable responsibilities are made more desirable by the payoff at the end.

Though the behaviorist theory is far from my favorite, I have to admit -- as will any parent who has used stickers, M & Ms or big girl panties as "bribery" during toilet training -- that sometimes the skill is important enough to warrant the nudge. But I also have to agree with my students that we walk a fine line. When we reward our children for everything short of breathing, we create an artificial expectation that neither we nor the world can satisfy. 

In the end, it's a balancing act, as is most of parenthood. We give and take, we negotiate. We release a little control here and hand off some responsibility there so that our children learn self-control and the acceptance of responsibility that is a necessary part of growing up.

And if we offer an M & M here and a dollar there as part of the process, I doubt we will scar them for life.

What do you think?

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