We have all been there. A week till Christmas and all you need to do is grab a few more presents. You and your little bundle of joy set out to the local Target or toy store to grab that perfect gift for sweet Aunt Josephine. It is four in the afternoon and you are hoping to get home in time to put dinner on the table. All has been going well.
Then it happens.
“Mom, can I have the candy bar? The Barbie? The Transformer?”
“Not today, dear.”
“But, Moooommm, why not?”
You proceed to try and reason with the little tyrant.
The more you say no the more the tyrant’s true colors come out. Before you know it, the kid is kicking and screaming on the floor, throwing objects. The judgmental stares start and the humiliation has begun. You have two choices: give in and give up or hold your ground. What is a parent to do?
Incentives versus bribes: For example, when you go to work forty hours a week, you know you will be getting paid a set upon agreement for the work you completed. This is a contract between you and your employer. If you do not complete the work or it is sub-par, you may find yourself out of job for breach of contract.
Your employer does not tell you they will pay you if you get the work done right now because you are throwing a tantrum.
A bribe is just that. Your child is making a scene in the grocery store and you tell them you will give them a candy bar if they are quiet. You just bribed your kid and told your child they have the power over you. Not only is this teaching the child to throw tantrums to get what they want, but it is also teaching them they are the boss…which is not helpful to parenting and not helpful to them when they transition out of the home.
When the Incentive does not work
I can recall a period of time when there was no incentive that would belay or defuse a behavioral problem. If you have a child on the spectrum or any child, you can probably relate on some level.
One Christmas, when our son was about five, we were shopping as a family. Our little one had had a great day and knew dessert was the incentive on the line. All he had to do was go through the store with good behavior. We were in Target and had to pass the Dollar Section. My son saw a piece of candy he wanted and immediately asked. I said no. He asked again. Again, I said no. When he saw I was serious, he dropped to the floor, kicking and screaming.
My son was approximately 40 pounds at five years old. We needed whatever it was we went into the store for. My son was causing a scene. I was faced with those same two choices: give in and give up or stand my ground.
I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who taught me not to ask them questions when they were on the phone or asleep (the answer would always be no). My parents taught me that they were parents, not friends (though they are friends today). My parents taught me that when you make bad choices bad things happen (a saying my son knows all too well). So, I did what I was taught.
I pulled my little tyrant, kicking and screaming from inside the store (judgmental glares starting), through a parking lot (new judgmental stares beginning) and to our car. I placed him in the car where he could kick and scream in safety under my own observation to his heart’s content. He learned very quickly that all he accomplished when throwing a tantrum was to lose his incentive, lose the fun outing, and tire himself out. I had a parenting win. My son never, and I mean NEVER, throw a public tantrum again. (Though sometimes I can see him thinking about it).
Consistency Consistency Consistency
When the incentive doesn’t work once, know that is natural. You didn’t start out minding your “p’s” and “q’s” either. This is a process.
If you expect perfect behavior from the get-go, please know you are drastically mistaken and setting yourself up for a drastic fall.
This process only works if you are:
1) On the same page
Just like an orchestra needs to be on the same page of music to make the sound beautiful, you and your partner need to be on the same page to raise wonderful people.
If you are following the plan, but your partner is not, your child will know that. Children are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They know who to ask for desserts and who is going to hold them accountable to do homework first. They know who will let them hang out with a friend before homework and who will ground them for failing grades. They know who they can get away with things with and who they can’t.
If you are not on the same page in this program, it will fail.
Like any good partnership (which is what child rearing is), both parents need to be on the same page with the rules, expectations and follow through.
This is not just a program to teach independence, accountability, and responsibility (which it will), this is a program that will teach your kid they can trust you in the big and the little things. This may seem trivial, but when they are teenagers and young adults faced with challenges of drugs, alcohol, skipping class and more, you will want them to trust you for guidance. If you do not follow through with these small things, there is no way they will trust you with the big.
2) Consistency is key
It is easy to implement this program in the summers and on school breaks when schedules are a bit freer. It is easy to implement this with small tasks (brush your teeth, make your bed). This is NOT easy to do all the time for all behaviors in all places. But it is needed and you WILL have success if you do.
It is helpful to be on the same page and track progress. I recommend you visit my blog Key to Unlocking the Mystery for how to do this successfully.
What you will find is consistency is key. You will have more success much more quickly if you are true to your word – even when you do not want to be.
When you incentives with dessert if your child makes his bed and cleans his room, then you MUST follow through with that dessert – even if your child had a terrible day in every other aspect of life and it seems counter-intuitive to give dessert.
If you incentivize with a trip to the fair if your child gets a B on his math test and he does, but his room is a mess and the chores are not done. You must go to fair.
For this program to work, you must be true to your word as much as you expect your child to be true to theirs.
Many people start this program and it works great for a month or a year. And then, for some reason, the incentive of a favorite TV show or book or activity no longer seems to hold the kind of sway it once did. Many, at this point, give up on the program because they do not think it is working.
In reality, the program is working, the incentives are not.
Just like you do not like the same food, activities, TV shows you did at sixteen, they will not always want to watch Octonauts and play with dinos. They will want to watch Transformers or help cook or bake or go out on the four-wheeler. We cannot expect the incentives staying the same to have the same output as our children grow and mature.
Expect change and be willing to change with it. Sometimes that change will be in the incentive the child wants.
Sometimes that change will be in the work required to get the incentive. My son has to work a lot harder to get dessert and a movie now than when he was five. He is older and as you grow you have more responsibility. What is expected of a child should change and grow with him just as much as what the child wants as an incentive.
Change is inevitable. So be willing to move and groove with it.
Deal or No Deal?
Some will say this is bribery. And I can understand why they would think that. Some would say it is teaching your child to make choices based on monetization of tasks. I would say, that is exactly how the world works. If my job as a parent is to teach my child to not just survive but thrive in the real world, then why would I not follow the format the world has given – money for time and consequences for bad choices.
It really is not a one size fits all model, but in our house, it works.