Debate: Is Rewarding Kids a Good Parenting Practice?
No, it’s the wrong message
By Kathy Gillen
“It won’t hurt much,” I told my two-year-old, Paige, as she waited for her immunizations. “It will be all done real fast.” Part of my statement wasn’t a lie.
Later, in the car, Paige examined her Pooh Bear bandage. Her tears were gone, and the trauma seemed to be fading. I was still shaken. But I knew just how to ease my pain: produce a little magic. “We’re going to go to the toy store,” I told Paige, “and you can pick out something because you were so brave when you got your shots.”
As the stiff plastic packaging and wire ties were removed from the new baby doll, delight filled my daughter’s face. The doll traveled by her side … for about a day. Paige never mentioned her doctor visit and soon abandoned the doll for her play kitchen. Later, as I tidied her room and placed the doll in a basket with other toys, I wondered: Did she deserve a treat? Pain is a part of life. Should she receive gifts or a lollipop for enduring her day, for growing up, for eating beans?
I continued to struggle with my reward system for a long time as Paige faced rejection from the neighbor kid, tackled a pile of cooked spinach, and lost her status as an only child as we added new siblings every other year.
When does behavior deserve a reward? After Pilates class, I used to treat myself to a Starbucks mocha. A pedicure is a treat I justified because I hauled sandals and swim noodles and beach towels to the pool all summer. And if I finished folding my laundry and put it all away, I decadently lay on my bed and got lost in a novel. But how would I teach my children that not all struggles end with a Crunch Bar or new Mario video game, when I often rewarded myself for enduring small inconveniences?
My answer came with my fourth child. Merritt had a degenerative, genetic disease. She would never develop beyond her present infantile state. Not even a side-by-side refrigerator or fresh family-room carpet would work on this hurt.
My mom friends tried to soothe me. Homemade dinners and certificates for massages were well-intentioned and appreciated, but when you win the horrible-things-that-happen-to-kids lottery, there is only so much a roasted chicken can do.
Still, the rewards kept coming. “You deserve it,” became a phrase used over and over by my well-intentioned friends. I bought into the mentality, too.
We desperately want life to be fair. We want goodness and love and great schools and healthy children for everyone. And when we realize it won’t be fair, we’re quick to offer rewards for pain. It’s easy to offer our children gifts and treats in exchange for their hurts. It seems the obvious thing to do, to try to take away their troubles.
When we act is if parenting produces hardships soothed only by rewards, then we model entitlement. Moms, of course, do deserve a break, dinner out, a kicking new outfit, and anything that helps self-esteem, but we need to set parameters for our rewards. If I had continued to rely on treats to help me cope with the daily chores of raising a special-needs child, then I would set a poor precedent for my children’s ability to handle adversity. And it isn’t just the demands of a handicapped child that can wear me down. If my kids see me fleeing the house for a mid-week shopping spree and I tell them, “I deserve some time alone,” then I’m teaching them that inconvenience is a reason to max out the credit card, or worse, that they are causing me grief which can only be fixed with a trip to the mall.
The doll I gave to Paige after her shots only taught her that the unpleasant parts of life will be rewarded. Well, sister, there will be a lot more unhappy times than a couple of shots. What will I do when she struggles with homework? Give her ice cream? When her first love breaks her heart, will I buy her a designer handbag? If her number one college pick sends her a thin letter, should I send her to Paris?
I don’t want my kids to be like dogs, anticipating a treat each time the cupboard of disappointment opens. I want to empower them to face adversity, solve problems, and understand that a positive attitude can be the quickest way to gain their equilibrium. Nobody wants hardship for a child, but amazing, life-altering joy can be found in even the dark corners of life. Teaching kids to embrace hardships without the aid of rewards can be the difference between understanding life and just muddling through it.
I recently heard of a girl who, while in the hospital with a rare kidney condition, decided to tell the people who sent her gifts to instead donate the money to an organization helping AIDS orphans in Africa. A child who is able to see beyond her own suffering and understand greater pain is rare. Children are self-focused, and when they are in pain they expect all of their parents’ attention and love. But in a society where parents try to cushion every blow their children receive, we need to teach our children that love doesn’t have to come wrapped in a brightly colored cardboard box or scooped into a cone.
Pain shouldn’t always be alleviated. Some of our children’s greatest lessons will be learned through their struggles. My compassion for others and gratitude for each new day has intensified through my own pain. Sure, I could have done without a few of those horrific months, sitting in labs, hospital rooms, and doctors’ offices while searching for answers. But my kids might have perceived Merritt as a hardship if I had rewarded myself with a new car or diamond tennis bracelet. Instead they see her as a special girl who doesn’t get ice cream after therapy or baby dolls after the doctor but lots of hugs and rounds of Itsy Bitsy Spider.
Do I deserve a break? Sure, I need time to myself, to regroup and relax. My kids need to see me having fun. But I hope they see me enjoying life, not rewarding myself for living it.
Kathy Gillen lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and four children.
Yes, parents have the power
By Renée Hill
There is a conversation I have had with my mother many times since the birth of my first child four years ago. The basic outline goes like this.
I didn’t have a lot of theories when I first started rewarding my son for his good behavior. The fact was, his birthday is in December—the same month as Christmas—and by late spring, I wanted to get the kid some new, age-appropriate toys. I thought it would be a bad precedent to set, if all he had to do was ask for them. So I started tying the acquisition of new playthings to his behavior. VoilÃ : My practice of rewarding his good behavior was born.
We’ve been chugging along like this for years now. He got M&Ms during potty training, plastic dinos after vaccinations. He gets new games for his Gameboy after good report cards and jaunts to the bookstore after a week’s worth of saxophone practice. When school lets out, we take a vacation.
You can call it bribery. I call it, “Hey, kiddo, I’m proud—let’s celebrate.”
I know the arguments against what I’m doing. The kid will come to expect rewards for any little thing. He’ll become an insufferable brat. His expectations of the real world will be unrealistic. He’ll grow up and be unable to handle his adult life, all because a well-meaning adult (me) taught him that life rewards good behavior, jobs well done, hard work.
But, jeez, it’s not as if he’s been sequestered in a bubble the span of his formative years.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a child, I was well aware of all the ways my small world was unjust. It wasn’t fair that I got my glasses broken in dodgeball, or that the richer kids seemed to be the more popular ones. It seemed arbitrary that we had to ask to use the bathroom at school, or that we could only get two library books at a time. It seemed cosmically wrong that, while a bunch of us girls were talking during class, I was the one who had to sit out recess.
These days, they don’t play dodgeball anymore (sorry, optometrists!) and you might get a note home from the teacher when some social situation goes awry. But, really, in the course of a childhood, hundreds of injustices are visited upon our kids. Small ones, we hope. Invisible to us, probably. But it happens to my kid, your kid, every kid. That’s the way the world is.
What I don’t understand is how we collectively got the idea that home is supposed to simulate the big, bad world. Why, again, are we supposed to try to mirror the reality that rewards aren’t necessarily handed out equally, or at all? It seems to me that the goal of any home should be the opposite: to offer a respite from the daily grind of the world’s uncertainty and injustice. I want my home to be the place where my son can expect unconditional support, where his efforts go rewarded, and where his biggest fan lives.
What I’m creating in our house, I suppose, is more like an ideal world. Here, there is compassion, in the form of making banana bread together when someone’s had a rough day. In our house, if you’ve worked to the best of your abilities and accomplished a goal, you might get a new CD. If you do something kind, someone takes notice, and there might be a trip to the ice rink in your future.
In many ways, my rewards system is more realistic than expecting the boy to find his work rewarding in itself (remember learning the times tables?) or hoping that he can find a vein of altruism to mine. Because, as imperfect as the world is, most of us adults work for the reward of money. We’re capitalists, after all. But I’m careful, in rewarding him, to give bonuses for effort, not his innate qualities like his handsomeness or athleticism. Besides, he can suss out what’s subjective mama-love (you’re so gorgeous!) and what’s genuine pride in his accomplishments.
My son will someday be an adult in this dog-eat-dog world, and with any luck, he’ll have a measure of power. He knows the great feeling of getting a reward. And he knows—because I’ve made it obvious—that I’ve gone to some effort to reward him when I get him a new gizmo or celebrate with a special outing. He’s learning that grown-ups—whether they’re parents, teachers, or bosses—have the power to reward. They should use it.
Renee Hill is a freelance writer. She’s currently at work on a collection of essays.
Brain, Child (Spring 2008)