For my autistic nine-year-old nephew, Jonah, it means that he doesn’t get his favorite food, “ketchupandfrenchfries,” if he hits. For my seven-year-old niece, Erika, it’s the promise of two hermit crabs complete with all accouterments (Cage? Cocktail sauce? I’m not sure) if she completes a giant math workbook. My four-year-old niece, Hilary, and three-year-old son, Declan, are susceptible to the standby Eat Three More Bites of Chicken And You Can Have Ice Cream . . . You Call That A Bite? bribe, while my two-year-old son, Ronan, and his twenty-month-old cousins, Aaron and Gretchen, will do almost anything if you let them “read” a board book at the dinner table.
I know you’re not supposed to offer dessert as a reward for eating dinner, but with a son who’s just above the third percentile for weight, I’m more concerned about calories than lifelong eating habits. And I’ve witnessed too many late night breakdowns of a starving child after trying the ol’ “You don’t want to eat? Fine, don’t eat, but you’re not getting anything else tonight!” How do you tell a screaming twenty-six-pound three-year-old that he can’t have any food?
Of course, once you hop on the bribery train, it’s hard to get off. I soon realized that Declan would do anything for a piece of gum, or a TV show before bed, or an extra ten minutes of play before naptime. I fear I’m creating a monster. Because, let’s face it, bribery works. At least in the short term – like when I just can’t bear to play another game of Zingo, or I need another ten minutes of coffee time before I put him down for a nap, or when I absolutely, positively cannot get out of bed at 5:45 a.m. again.
But when does “incentive” become “bribery”? Or “blackmail”? When I see Erika rushing to finish her dinner so she has more time to work on her math problems, visions of hermit crabs dancing in her head, I have to wonder: Is learning for a the sake of learning different from learning for the sake of a hermit crab?