A celebration of parenting with Katrina Roe

Tag Archives: rewards

In my last post I talked about my daughter’s athletics carnival.

That day she came home with a sticker that said ‘I ran in a race’.  Whoever is making those stickers is making a fortune because everybody there had one.  There was no ribbon for getting third in the longjump, but every kid got a sticker that said ‘I ran in a race.’

I realise that this is designed to put the emphasis on participation, rather than winning.  But I am not sure why we feel we have to reward kids for doing something that everybody has to do anyway.  We’ve created a culture where kids won’t do anything without being rewarded, even if that reward is just a sticker or our praise.  The obvious problem with that is that it creates a sense of entitlement, where they’re always looking for a reward, rather than a sense of achievement.  But it can also mean that they’re reluctant to try something they’re not so good at, because they’re looking for the gold star, rather than a chance to learn something.

Birdy has a natural ability for Maths, and she was put in a Maths group with some very bright kids.  But ever since she heard that her report card last year said she was ‘outstanding’ at Maths, she’s been trying to convince us that she’s hopeless at it, that it’s too hard, and that she needs to go down into a lower Maths group.
I have a bad mum confession to make, we didn’t get Caillie’s maths homework done last week.  No excuse, we just didn’t get to it.  So last night I said ‘You’ve got to do last week’s homework before we start this weeks.’  ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘but there’s no point, I won’t be able to get it marked.’  So I explained to her that the point of doing maths homework isn’t just to get the smiley face and the sticker, you’re actually meant to learn the stuff.  At which point she said it was too hard and she couldn’t do it.  So I sat down with her to supervise and when she finished I said, ‘See that wasn’t too hard’.  ‘Yes it was, it was way too complicated’.  And I said, ‘But you got every question right… How can it be too hard if you got every single question right?’.  Well, the reason she thought it was too hard was because she actually had to work out the answer.  She didn’t just know it immediately.  She’s used to it being easy and that makes her feel clever.  Hence she wants to go into a lower Maths group, so she can just know all the answers and feel like she’s clever.  And that’s the problem with giving kids gold stars all the time, that feeling is addictive.  They become more concerned with the reward, or the ‘clever feeling’ they get from the reward, than the learning outcome.
I’m a bit of a slave driver when I supervise homework.  I’m always saying, ‘Is that your best work?’. ‘That’s too messy, rub that out and do it again’.  But that’s because I’m a big believer in the idea that the best reward is the satisfaction of a job well done.  I would rather do half of it properly, than race through just to finish.  So the only reward Caillie gets from me is, ‘Good on you, you’ve finished it,’ or ‘That’s enough, you’ve worked well.’  But you know what, after we finished the exercise, and I pointed out that she got all those hard questions right, I told her it was time for a bath, and you’ll never believe what she said:  ‘Oh, No, mum!  Do I have to?  I want to do more homework!’

Last week I wrote about getting kids active and in my weekly chat with Aaron and Erin on Hope Breakfast, we touched on another topic that I thought we should explore a little more – winning.  Well, winning and losing really, because you can’t have one without the other.

In our conversation, Erin touched on the fact that we’ve stopped letting kids lose.  We want to protect them from any kind of disappointment in life and I’m not sure that does them any favours.  We hear a lot about resilience – resilience is the ability to bounce back after adversity – but it’s hard to develop resilience in a culture where everybody wins a prize.

I was at a kid’s birthday party last weekend, (actually I’m at a kid’s birthday party pretty much every weekend), and they had the obligatory game of Pass the Parcel.  When we were kids, – if you were lucky enough to get a party and a cake and a Pass the Parcel then you’d struck gold already – there was usually only one big prize at the end of the parcel.  There may have been a few lollipops scattered through the layers, but they were usually those awful green ones that nobody likes.  And it certainly wasn’t expected that every layer would contain a prize.  These days, every child has to win, and all the prizes have to be the same so that nobody thinks their prize is worse than anybody else’s.  A few years ago, at Birdy’s 3rd birthday we did a pass the parcel and we left some layers empty.  I warned the kids, “Not every layer will have a present,” but everybody was talking about it as though we’d served up brussell sprouts instead of fairy bread.

I think is important to give kids lots of practice at both losing and winning.  We are all going to experience both in life.  When we apply for a job, not everybody will get the job.  When we want to win over a love interest, they may decide they prefer somebody else.  We may not get into the course we wanted to at TAFE or Uni.  So losing and missing out are inevitable at some stage.  But how we deal with winning and losing really comes down to how we manage our expectations.

It’s been interesting to reflect on this during the Olympics.  If an athlete wins a silver medal, when they were expected to win gold, the story will be, “Seebhom has missed out on the gold medal…”  There’s also been lots of talk about the Mens Four, who were acting like silver medal was worse than a kick in the head.  Whereas for an athelete who wasn’t expected to win, the headline would be, “So and so has taken out a silver medal”, like it’s a great triumph, which it is.  So how we perceive winning and losing is all about our expectations.  I don’t think we should let our kids win all the time.  If every time you play a card game you let your kids win, you’re creating unrealistic expectations and they’ll be devastated when they don’t win.  On the other hand, if they lose all the time, they’ll become discouraged and won’t want to play.  The way to manage this without rigging every game is to make sure that what you’re playing is on the right level for your children, so they can win sometimes.  For small kids, a game of chance may be fairer, or a game that combines elements of skill and chance, otherwise the youngest sibling in the family is never going to win anything.

Having said that, it’s not healthy for little kids to feel like their performance is being judged all the time.  After all, they are only learning (everything!) so they shouldn’t be expected to perform to a certain standard, or to always be compared to their siblings or peers.  It’s helpful to have other goals besides winning.  If you play a sport and your only goal is to win, then you are going to be disappointed.  You need to have other achievable goals so that when you don’t win, you can still be proud of what you’ve achieved.  I’m a writer, and for every manuscript that gets accepted I would probably get 30 rejections.  If I felt that every rejection was a failure, then I wouldn’t bother trying.  So when I first started sending out my stories, I would consider my submission successful if I got a personal letter back with some positive feedback.  At least that publisher thought my work had enough merit to want to offer some encouragement.

So while there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, encourage your kids to have other goals as well.  “I want to improve on my best time.” Or “I want to pass my maths exam.”  If we can help them set some goals that are realistic, then winning doesn’t have to be the be all and end all.

Are your kids naturally competitive?  Do they get upset when they lose?  Should children be protected from the whole concept of winning and losing while they’re little?  How do you strike a balance between playing for fun and enjoying the achievement of winning?

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?

Oh it’s been another action-packed week for me and Birdy.  We’ve been fully immersed in toilet training this week.  (I had to wait until the flower-girl thing was over – didn’t want any accidents going down the aisle.) There’ve been some emotional highs and lows, let me tell you, but we’re starting to see some success.

This isn’t my first attempt at toilet training. We actually had a go about six months ago and didn’t get anywhere.  Birdy just wasn’t interested and after a whole week of sitting on the potty with no results, I got sick of cleaning up the mess and just gave up.

So what’s made the difference this time?  Bribery.  It was the only way I could get her interested.  Look at it from the child’s perspective: if they’ve been in nappies for their entire life so far, it’s a pretty big habit to break.  You need some kind of incentive to get them to make the effort.  So we did the sticker chart on the wall.  (It’s actually in our dining room so all our guests can assess Birdy’s toileting progress over dinner.) Every time she uses the potty she gets a sticker on the wall.  Then when the row is filled up she gets a treat.  So far we’ve handed out two chocolate eggs, one toy fox, and the big final prize for when the whole chart is filled up is a pretty pink Disney Tinkerbell bike helmet.  Even without the rewards, I think the stickers have helped her to see her progress and feel like she’s achieving something.

Everybody wants to know if there’s a ‘right’ time to do toilet training.  Experts say there’s a window of opportunity between about 20 and 36 months, but every child is going to be different. A lot of people told me that when they’re ready you can train them in about a week and I’ve certainly found that to be the case.  According to the experts, the signs to look out for are:

–       when they’re showing interest in toileting and bodily functions

–       when they start telling you that they need a nappy change or that they’re doing a wee

–       and if they’re staying dry for longer periods, because that means they’re starting to exercise control.

But in our case, none of those things were particularly relevant, so my advice is just to have a go and see if it works.  You certainly shouldn’t do it when the child is already stressed, like when you’re moving house or they’ve just started at childcare.  And you also shouldn’t put any deadline on it, like expecting them to be trained before the new baby comes, because you don’t want them to feel pressured.  But you’ve also got to consider when you as the parent are ready, because it takes up so much time and energy and you’ve got to clean up all the mess.  Personally, I think there should be a sticker reward system for the parents – clean up five accidents and reward yourself with a caramel latte and Double Choc Tim Tam.  Works for me.

When do you think is the best time for toilet training?  Did you use a reward system with your kids?  And what do you do when you’re out at the shopping centre and your child has an accident?  Did you use pull-ups or go straight to underpants?  What was the secret to your toilet-training success?

To make a comment, first click on the story title, and then fill in the box called ‘Leave A Reply’.

%d bloggers like this: