BY LINDA SWANSON, RETIRED ELEMENTARY SCHOOL PRINICIPAL
I’ve grown to realize that rewarding what is expected is counterproductive and that this habit is pretty much out of control in society today. This method is even used to encourage adults. Everyone who works with children encounters that somewhat gray area of acknowledging behaviors that truly are expected. When we give our children rewards for expected behavior we send a false message and we cause them to believe that rewards come with that behavior. This is truly a mistake. I used the word believe, purposely, they believe it because they watch us model it. So, as much as we want our children to act appropriately just because “it is the right thing to do,” how do we make that happen in a meaningful, productive and long lasting way?
As a teenager I was given the opportunity to travel with the Spanish Club to Mexico one spring break. It had been briefly discussed with my parents that the camera I owned was probably good enough to take but something a bit better might take nicer pictures. Not having any extra money of my own, I simply dismissed the possibility. When our third quarter grades were distributed my Spanish grade had not improved over the last quarter. I was disappointed when my father announced that if I had brought that grade up he would have purchased a camera for me to take to Mexico. You can imagine my disappointment as well as my unhappiness in that he hadn’t told me of that plan – i.e. bribery was not a means of striving to change one’s behavior in our home. I really felt unhappy that I hadn’t been told of this possibility but knew way down deep that I should have raised my grade just because it would have been a good thing to do. That particular lesson was meaningful, done in that way, and obviously has been long lasting for me.
Having spent time in thought and research prior to this writing, I find myself contemplating rewards verses punishment. I know this has been a long standing topic of discussion as well as a struggle for parents. My old fashioned upbringing causes me to think that society has moved away from discipline or punishment. And perhaps the move began when punishment was administered in a threatening rather than a loving, correctional manner. In reality there is a cost for unacceptable behavior and its most productively channeled through logical consequences. Here’s an example, if you’re allergic to chocolate and you disobey by eating some you may get sick. However, as parents we don’t want to wait to teach the lesson of consequences until a poor decision causes life threatening results.
I’m sure you know where I’m headed - it begins when they are young. There is also substantial proof that inappropriate punishment and demeaning attitudes may provoke our children to anger which leads to consequential behaviors for everyone. I have heard and experienced this as a mother;one negative comment can hardly be erased by ten positive remarks. Therefore, we must discipline ourselves to be more positive. How do we make that as simple as possible? Compliment your children for the behaviors you appreciate they display when you see them but don’t bride them to do the right thing. One author said he always did the right thing because he was afraid to find out what his mother
might do for punishment and there was no way he would take the chance to find it out. Probably children have several reasons for doing the right thing without even anticipating a reward but we know when good behavior is acknowledged by a simple “thank you” or “nice job” it’s likely that it will be repeated. This type of acknowledgement is far different from the one that lavishes a material compensation into the process. An affirmation from an adult is a little bonus, a special treat. A bribe, on the other hand, is used to motivate a child in advance. It is an outside motivator that allows the child to give you what you want, not necessarily what they know is the best for them and others. Additionally, we know they will enjoy the bribe but what we really are trying to teach them is to make wise choices so that their future (near and far) will be bright. We’re all happier when we are making good choices. So encourage your children to do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do. They will have a sense of accomplishment that far out weighs a tangible reward.
Linda Swanson, retired Southwestern Elementary Principal. She earned her B.A. degree from Houghton College and M.S. in Early Childhood Education from Fredonia State. Mrs. Swanson is a lifelong resident of southwestern New York State. Her early teaching experience was at Randolph Elementary. She currently enjoys substitute teaching and volunteering at Z.E.A.L., an after school tutoring program at Zion Covenant church and also a volunteer for Love Inc.