Last week I had a new experience.  That makes two in two weeks.  You don’t get that many new experiences at 36, so to have two in two weeks is kinda novel.  The first one was that I got a henna tattoo to celebrate my friend’s wedding!  It was a communal girls’ night activity and rather fun!  The second new experience was that I auditioned for a TV show last week.  Again, not something that happens every day.

The audition was for a new family show and they were looking for a female  co-host to join the male presenter.  For the audition, I had to prepare a 3-minute piece to camera on a parenting topic of my choice.  I was inspired to write on the topic of rewards.  This is because I had recently interviewed Lousie Porter, Child Psychologist on my radio program.  If you’re interested, you can listen to the interview here.   Anyway, since I did the interview a lot of people have asked me about it and expressed an interest in reading her book, Children Are People Too.  Louise is totally against all forms of reward and punishment as a way of influencing young children’s behaviour.  She believes that learning to behave considerately is a new skill, just like riding a bike, or playing the piano and that children shouldn’t be punished for making mistakes because punishment damages the parent-child relationship.  (Again, if you want to know more, listen to the interview or read the book – I can’t do her theories justice in a short paragraph!)  She also believes that rewards encourage competitive behaviour, not cooperation, so I decided to explore that idea in my presentation.  (It’s less controversial than her ideas on punishment!)

So I thought I’d share my presentation with you.  It’s a little more instructional than my usual style, but I hope you’ll enjoy it anyway:

We all know parenting has its rewards, but is offering rewards part of good parenting?

When our children do something that pleases us, we naturally want to reward them.  Most of us who are parents will just instinctively reward behaviour we like, and punish behaviour we don’t like or that we think is unacceptable.

Rewards can be an easy way to get your child to cooperate with your agenda.  I have a strong memory from my childhood of what my mum called The Hanky Race. It was my Mum’s way of getting us all into bed as quickly as possible.  Whoever was first into bed won a hanky.  It might seem like the most enticing prize today, but it certainly worked every time.  My sisters and I would vie for the honour of winning the hanky and Mum got us all to bed in a flash.

Rewards can also be helpful when you want to encourage your child to focus their energy on learning a new skill, like the classic star chart for toilet training.  The star chart helps the child to see their progress and focus on what they’re achieving, rather than their mistakes.

Of course, there are some downsides to using rewards, especially individual ones.  Imagine you have a team of sales executives and you offer a big prize, such as a holiday to the executive who makes the most sales.  This may motivate the executives individually, but it won’t encourage them to pass on sales leads to each other.  Individual rewards promote competition, not cooperation.

If you want your kids to tidy their room and you offer a prize to the child with the tidiest room, they may tidy up, but they probably won’t help each other.  Instead the child who doesn’t receive the prize may feel resentful of the one who did.  After all, they both tidied their rooms.  Instead, you could offer a collective reward, “If you all tidy your rooms quickly, then we can go to the aquatic centre for a swim as soon as you’re finished.”

Of course, the reward we all use most frequently is our praise.  While it seems logical to offer children praise when they do well, too much praise can be a bad thing.  You don’t want your child to be always needing praise to feel good about themselves and their achievements.  Instead, acknowledge their achievement, without overstating their brilliance.  For example if your child is improving on the piano, you can say, “Congratulations, I can see you’ve been practising.  You should be proud of yourself.”  Rather than saying, “Clever girl, aren’t you wonderful!”

You might be wondering what the difference is.  Well one is encouraging them to enjoy the achievement for it’s own sake.  Whereas the other implies they need to be dreadfully clever to earn your approval, which may discourage them from persisting at tasks they don’t naturally excel at.  Or they may play the piano only to please you, when they really don’t enjoy it at all.

The other problem with offering a reward (eg. a new computer game if you get good grades at school) is that it teaches them to value the material reward, rather than the achievement itself.  The computer game becomes the goal, not the grades.  What ultimately has more value, a new computer game, or good grades?

Finally, rewards can be addictive.  We used to have a dog that would do any trick for a treat, but as soon as the treat was gone, he refused to do the trick.  It’s like when you reward children for eating all their dinner by offering them dessert.  The first time it works brilliantly, but soon they’ll be asking you what’s for dessert and calculating whether it’s worth eating all their peas to get it.  Again, the focus has been taken off the good thing – eating a healthy dinner, and onto the reward, dessert.

So if you’re going to use rewards in your family, don’t depend on them too much to influence behaviour.  Instead try to emphasise the natural rewards that come from right actions.  If you’re kind, you’ll make a friend.  If you sleep well, you’ll enjoy the day more.  And if you practice hard, you’ll be able to enjoy playing the piano.  In the same way, if we put the hard yards into our parenting, we’ll hopefully enjoy the rewards in years to come – by fostering a lifelong friendship with our children.

BTW, I didn’t get the part.  I got down to the final two, but they decided to give it to another lady because she has five kids whereas I only have one.  (Ouch!)  I wasn’t too heartbroken about not getting the part, but I was a little hurt by the reason, considering I had shared really openly about my miscarriages with them.  Talk about rubbing salt into the womb!  Oops, I mean wound.  Of course I do understand that someone with five kids has a lot of experience to draw on.  But with all Birdy’s various dramas, I feel like we’ve experienced more challenges than some people do with 2 or 3 kids.  Anyway, I really enjoyed the experience of auditioning.  Like I said, it’s not something that happens every day.  But I don’t think TV is for me.  I’m far more comfortable hiding behind the microphone and the headphones.  At least I don’t have to worry about hair and makeup and what to wear!