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?
“Why shouldn’t your child have a goal?” asks Rhea Lee, a Philadelphia mom to Jazzy, seven, and Sophia, four. “We work so we get paid. We work harder so we get a bonus. Those who say the accomplishment itself should be the reward are really full of themselves. Then why not work pro-bono all the time and feel great that you helped without any monetary or material rewards?”
“Incentives, for certain children, work wonders,” Rhea argues. “Last spring, Sophia worked very hard to learn her ABCs so that she could get Licorice, the American Girl cat. I provide incentives until the goal is achieved. After all, Sophia no longer gets an M&M every time she goes potty and no longer expects it. But what she has learned is that for certain things, there are rewards to be had and she enjoys reaching her goal and the reward.”
But many parents feel that providing a reward for doing something that a child is supposed to do is a slippery slope. Many parents feel that providing a reward for doing something that a child is supposed to do is a slippery slope. “I am no fan of bribing,” says Bostonian Kathy Waugh, mom to seven-year-old Anya. “I expect her to be good, and mostly she is.”
“I see kids all around me who get bribed a lot and it’s kinda disgusting,” Kathy continues. “This is already such a freaking mercenary, gimme-gimme-gimme culture and I hate seeing kids sucked into it.”
And that’s the greatest fear, isn’t it? By bribing our kids now for short-term gains, are we teaching them in the long term that the only things worth doing are those with tangible rewards?
Jeremy Sauer, of Northborough, Mass., and father to Jack, two, and Martha, ten months, certainly thinks so. “Good behavior and manners, eating the food in front of you, giving one’s best effort in school/sports/friendships/church/life, et cetera, aren’t acts that necessitate compensation. They’re inherent responsibilities of every child/kid/young adult on the planet. To bribe someone to perform their natural duty of contributing to a better life for themselves and everyone around them seems wrong.”
But how does a rebellious two-year-old learn his “natural duty”? It’s certainly not innate, like nursing. If kids followed their innate tendencies, we’d all snatch and bite and wallow in our filth. It’s our responsibility as parents to instill that duty, that desire to be good and to succeed. The question is: How do we do it? Is forcing a child to clean his plate any better than bribing a child to do the same? Does the former even work?
I was a skinny kid like Declan, but my mother never bribed me to eat my food. “My attitude was that I’m the parent, you and [your sister] were the kids, and you should do what I want you to do,” my mom explains. “When a child won’t do something unless he gets a reward, who’s in charge?”
I don’t agree with my mother’s implication that Declan’s in charge, but it’s true that he has choices. I just set the boundaries, and that seems to work. Experts agree that young children need some degree of control in their lives, since so many aspects of their lives are completely out of their control. Is forcing a child to clean his plate any better than bribing a child to do the same? They advise letting children make small decisions that, to them, mean a lot. Declan can choose to eat his green beans or not. If he does make the choice to eat them, he gets some yummy ice cream. If he chooses not to eat them, he gets squat. In the end, he’s the one making the decision, not me.
And I hope that, over time, he’ll internalize his “natural duty” and won’t need a cupcake, or a hermit crab, or a board book, to get him to do the things I expect him to do. At some point, I tell myself, the joy Declan gets from cleaning his room or acing a test or completing a math workbook will come from the pride of having done something well, rather than a Webkinz or licorice reward.
Okay, you can stop laughing now.
Photo Credit: Angela Calderon