Having a blog is dangerous.
Before a blog, you just keep your alternative thoughts in your head. You smile and nod at people as they walk by. You sit in church and PTA meetings and look normal. But once you have a blog and start writing about honest feelings and strong opinions, your brain gets exposed. People may relate to you or they may think you are ridiculous.
Once that post is published, there is no more nodding or smiling or acting like you think like everyone else. Your readers know where you stand for good or bad or right or wrong.
This is one of the posts where I have thought about the topic for a long time. But when I used to bring it up, people would look at me weird, like what’s her problem? It is not the normal thought process. It is not what I see at church. It is not what I see at school. And it is not what I see in homes.
So at the risk of some of you thinking I am ridiculous, I am going to state my opinion clearly:
We over reward our children.
Here is a treat for this; a sticker for that; food for this; money for that; let me throw you a bone.
My courage to finally state my opinion came after I pinned this bookmark and after class Valentine parties.
This bookmark is a reward system for reading the Book of Mormon. The family gets to go do a fun activity after they finish reading each book in the Book of Mormon.
For those of you that unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon, it is a book that Mormons consider to be scripture. We believe it to be another testament of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon is made up of several smaller books. Some have 1 chapter; others have 30+ chapters.
I pinned the bookmark because I think it is cute. I think it is clever. I think it is creative. I think this is a good mom doing her best and making family life fun. And I would love an excuse to go to Olive Garden for dinner.
Plus just that morning (that I pinned it) we had finished reading the book of 2nd Nephi (one of the books in the Book of Mormon). It was great timing. I thought maybe it wouldn’t be too late to start this reward program. We could go skating and out to icecream at the same time and catch up.
But then I started thinking about my children that morning. They were so excited that we finished 2nd Nephi! They were smiling and their eyes sparkled. They couldn’t stop talking about it. I kept saying “Wow! We did it. We finished 2nd Nephi!” (I was amazed we made it through those Isaiah chapters.) We metaphorically high fived around the room and bragged about how far we had come. The kids beamed with pride.
After I reflected back on our happy morning, I realized we didn’t need a book mark. We didn’t need a reward system. The kids were proud to finish 2nd Nephi and that was enough. It felt good inside to accomplish a hard task together as a family. We all felt personal satisfaction for our diligence and obedience. The kids had an intrinsic reward.
To attach food or an activity to the already rewarding accomplishment, would be placing an extrinsic reward over the top of an intrinsic reward. The yummy french fries or the fun of swimming would overwhelm and overtake the true good feeling of reading and learning and keeping the commandments.
The intrinsic reward would be masked by the extrinsic reward.
Now you might say that we can feel good about what we did and still get a reward. But let’s look at this matter closely. One reward is a natural extension of the experience. While the other one is superimposed and trite. One reward is real and one is a fake. The real one lasts longer and feels better, but it is more subtle. Whereas the fake one pops a punch and makes a quick impression. And the more you have the fake ones the more desensitized you are to the real ones. (For a minute there I thought I was talking about boob jobs.)
Soon the real rewards don’t feel good enough and you prefer the outer awards. But they are not long lasting and of worth so you must seek more and more to feel the same level of accomplishment.
(Research backs me on this by the way.)
Here is another example in my own home of the point I am trying to make:
We have been working on dinner dishes at our house. We try to beat 15 minutes each night working together. You can read about our dinner system here. I thought maybe it would be fun to start keeping track when we beat the clock and then after a certain number of successful times we could go out to eat and not have to do dishes. Great idea, right?
But then I saw my kids working hard night after night to beat the clock. We worked together. We formed strategies at the table and got on any kid that wasn’t doing his/her part. We hugged and high fived when we beat it and we groaned when the clock beat us. And we try again the next night.
I realized the kids didn’t need any extra motivation. Beating the clock was enough. That was a thrill. Working together was enough. Why would I superimpose an external reward on an already internally rewarding feeling?
And the final push to post this opinionated blog came last week at your typical school classroom Valentine party. I was in charge of a game and I went with my always successful, go to Cupid’s Arrow. This is where the kids get to stick cotton swabs in straws and blow them out in an attempt to hit heart targets. What kid doesn’t want to blow objects through a straw and send it flying?
As I was explaining the game to the first group, one of the boys said, “Do we get a treat if we hit a heart?” I held back a “Hell no!” and said, “I’ll give you a high five and you’ll feel good inside.”
But I started to question myself. Should I have brought a treat to give them at the end? Another mom in the other station brought treats despite the fact that they were going to get 30 treats from classmates and a doughnut from the party. Was my game not enough on its own? Was I going to have to respond to the treat question over and over again?
Interestingly, not one other kid the rest of the day (and I did the game in 2 classes) asked me for a treat. They were all engaged and focused on hitting the target. They wanted to try different cotton swab positions and angles of the straw. Sometimes they went for distance. Sometimes they went for accuracy. Kids were elated when they hit a heart and bummed when they missed. They were competitive with other classmates and with themselves. The internal rewards abounded.
Afterall, the kids had just thought. They just strategized. They just improved. They just tried. They just failed. They just succeeded. They just had fun.
If I had given them a treat at the end of the game, no matter how small, I would have dulled those intrinsically rewarding feelings and masked them with sugar. I would have contributed to the “what are you going to give me” epidemic that runs through our society.
Since I pinned that bookmark weeks ago, we have finished 5 more books in the Book of Mormon. The same excitement existed every time we finished a book. Not because they were going to get a late night or a trip to McDonalds, but because it felt good to read, and learn, and finish.
Now the time may come when I need to bust out this bookmark – probably around Alma 29 when the kids realize we are not even half way through the book yet. My kids will most likely get bored with scriptures as they get older or disengaged or disinterested. I may need to place an incentive before them to get any dishes done around here. The day may even come when a spitting through a straw no longer excites a boy.
But not now. My kids enjoy reading and working together. They are feeling intrinsic reward and those are enough. The less I place extrinsic rewards over the top of intrinsic rewards, the more natural their feelings are. And the longer they will last.
So don’t rush in with a reward when the kids don’t even need one. Only use candy, food, treats, points, stickers, and money to motivate IF a child needs motivation. (We do a reward system with our morning routine because I can’t get anyone to make their dang beds.) Otherwise you will mask and dull what already feels good. You will create a need when a need didn’t exist.
I know I am in the minority on this. Most people I see think nothing of giving out treats and rewards. What’s the big deal after all? It is just a sucker.
You’re right. It is just a sucker. But the cumulative effect of sucker after sucker, treat after treat, reward after reward, in class after class, day after day, has a price. The effects are subtle, but they are costly. I want my children to feel on the inside and for themselves what true rewards feel like. I want them to experience that hard work rewards. Reading rewards. Learning rewards. Peace rewards. Love rewards. Relationships reward. Sugar does not.