We’ve really entered a new era since Birdy turned three. I feel like we’ve turned some invisible corner. We’ve passed out of the terrible twos and she’s now a big grown-up three year old.
One of the biggest differences is that we now have a lot less tantrums and a lot more negotiation going on. For example, the other night we were having dinner and she’d eaten everything except four little pieces of broccoli. Then she asked me if she could watch a bit of television, so I said, “You can watch one episode of Charlie and Lola if you eat all your broccoli.” Never have I seen broccoli disappear so fast! Now depending on how you look at that, you could say I bribed her with television, you could say she got a reward for eating all her dinner, or you could say that we negotiated an outcome that we were both happy with.
Of course, some people reading this will question whether you should reward kids for something that they’re supposed to do anyway, like eating dinner. Some child psychologists say that you shouldn’t use rewards, as they encourage competitive behaviour rather than teamwork, but I think rewards can be a useful tool for teaching new skills. And for little children, learning to eat dinner or use the toilet properly is actually a skill. But far more important is the skill of being able to delay gratification, because that is the basis of all forms of discipline. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, delayed gratification means doing something you don’t like now, so you’ll get a bigger reward later. Another way of describing it is learning to control your impulses. Most kids from functional families learn this skill quite naturally throughout childhood, but those who don’t will end up in a lot of trouble.
To some extent you can teach delayed gratification through negotiating… like saying “if you come and help me do the grocery shopping, I’ll take you to the park afterwards.” But mostly it’s going to be taught through modeling. Part of the reason that a three-year-old is so much easier to get on with than a two-year-old is because developmentally they are starting to learn impulse control. When a two year old asks for icecream, they’ll cry and say “I want it now! I want it now!” and you can’t reason with them, but a three or four-year-old is more likely to accept that if you eat all your dinner, then you can have some icecream. The flip side of this is that we need to make sure we don’t unconsciously reward impulsive behaviour by giving in to every unreasonable demand. Because that teaches children NOT to delay their gratification, or NOT to control their impulses and that could have really terrible consequences for them down the track.
Do you use rewards to control behaviour or are you philosophically opposed to any use of rewards? What kinds of rewards do you use? Do they work? Do some children respond more to rewards than others?