Step 2: Challenges in Establishing a Reward System (continued)
This program sure is different from the way I was raised, but I’m giving it a good try. What I can’t accept, though, is the money thing. I don’t mind spending time with my children when they do well, but paying the children to do things that they should do really bothers me. What do you think?
This question addresses the issue discussed in the example just above, only from the opposite point of view. It is possible to construct a very effective program without compromising your comfort about “the money thing.” Many of the most powerful rewards relate to privileges. One of the most important messages we can convey to our children is that freedom and choice – that is, privileges – are earned by individuals who demonstrate through responsible behavior the capacity to manage them. Among the privileges you can focus on to stay clear of money is special time with you.
To be sure that I have addressed all of your concerns, I should make one more comment. You mentioned your discomfort with paying your children to “do things they should,” and of course in some sense of the phrase, the entire program involves paying (with credits) for things parents think their children should do. In part this approach is based on the observation that the way the wider world operates overall is that responsible behavior (work) results in benefit (pay). Our whole monetary system is an embodiment of the Principle of Positive Reinforcement. If you can see things in that light, you may accept that there is nothing inappropriate in rewarding children as part of teaching them to be responsible.
We have two children. Missie gets most things done easily and Marty always dawdles and fails. How can we be fair if we reward Marty for things Missie does anyway?
Many families have one child who learns responsibility easily and another who requires extra effort. This challenges parents to meet the needs of each without being unfair to either. It can be even more complicated if you feel that you must treat each child exactly the same, regardless of their differences.
A woman brought her identical eleven-year-old twin daughters to see me. She felt as if she were walking on a razor edge as she struggled to treat them equally all the time, fearing that any tiny false step could raise claims of favoritism. As one example, if she woke Nellie first in the morning and Ellie even a second later, Ellie claimed her mother didn’t love her, much as Nellie would react if the mother started with Ellie. Nor could she win by waking them together or alternating which she woke first. This mother could not imagine giving up her struggle nor could she see that she might well be inadvertently teaching her children to feel fragile and vulnerable, though acting as if each was justified in feeling wounded when she didn’t come first in every way likely did just that.
This anecdote illustrates how detrimental it can be for children to believe that they can dictate how their parents treat them. These twins invested so much energy into assuring that they were treated with preference that they had little energy left with which to handle the challenges of the rest of their lives. One result is that they never learned to take responsibility for their own behavior, including control over their own reactions and emotions.
As you design and operate your program, keep clear in your mind that your job is to start where each child is and to help each to increase the level of responsible behavior from there. When you write your program, include target behaviors that fit each child. For example, if one child doesn’t make the bed regularly, consider adding that to your program, but don’t include it for the child who already does that job. Don’t be surprised or annoyed if the one who already makes the bed complains, since it will not seem fair. To help the child understand, explain your reasoning. For example:
Missie, I’m pleased to know you are interested in how you and Marty are both doing. I can see that it seems unfair that he earns credits for making his bed and you don’t. I’d wonder if I were you, too, so let me explain. Our job as parents is to help each of you learn to take responsibility for your behavior. That includes things like making your beds. We are really pleased that you learned to do this a long time ago so that you don’t need our help. But as you know, Marty has a hard time getting his bed made even though he can do it when he tries. So, we put this in his program to help him get used to doing it on his own. We’ll keep working with him until that happens. That is the same reason we put getting your math turned in on time in your program, to help you with something that has been hard for you even though we know you can do it when you try. We’ll keep working with you until you can do this on your own, too.
Children approached with such a clear, thoughtful, and truthful explanation recognize how reasonable it is and tend to complain much less. If Missie does complain and if you think another explanation will help her understand, explain again. After that simply repeat, “I’m sorry if you don’t understand, but that is just the way it is.” Defending yourself is not a constructive response, and if you are pushed, I suggest you rely on the guidelines for tuning out persistent arguing discussed in Chapter 2.