Dear Dr. Fournier:
You say parents should not tie material rewards to their children’s grades. To my regret, I pay my children for grades and chores. I thought that since adults work for pay, children should work for pay, too. Now each time I ask for help I am asked, “How much are you going to pay me?” How do I get out of this trap?
Little Rock, Arkansas
It is common for parents to use a system of punishments and rewards when they are dealing with their children. It seems natural to reward a completed job, or to punish a child for not handling his or her responsibilities, and many parents out there will argue for this kind of system. The assumption is just as you said, “I thought that since adults work for pay, children should work for pay, too.”
However, let’s stop and think about this for a moment. At the office, if you have not completed the work you were expected to do, we do not hear an employer come in and say, “If you complete the employee handbook, I’ll give you $5 for each paragraph and $1 for every sentence,” or “Bring in your stereo. You’ve lost it for a month for not getting your work in on time.”
A child’s hopeful question, “How much are you going to pay me?” is often followed by a predictable response when parents refuse to buy into a reward system: “But you get paid for the work you do – !”
Yes, adults work hard to make money and pay the bills, but children have the idea of working to collect pocket money for fun. Parents are not responsible for hiring their children to go to school or to be a contributing member of the household. If a parent makes the choice to pay their child for success in school and for chores at home, the child is silently being told that their motivation is directly tied to our wallets.
In the workplace, adults may find themselves taking on additional tasks or carrying work home without the expectation of extra pay. Just imagine responding to a supervisor’s request with the question “How much are you going to pay me?” It could jeopardize future promotions, job security, and the paycheck.
Life will give our children enough opportunities to work for money. As parents, we must teach children to carry out responsibilities regardless of the time, tediousness, or discomfort that the task may require.
The responsibilities that come with being a contributing member of a loving and caring family should not be for sale, nor should success in school. Whenever a child asks, “What do I get for it?” your only answer needs to be, “The opportunity to learn how to love, care and avoid suffering losses in future relationships.” Your child needs to take ownership of his accomplishments and he cannot do that if his success is bought and paid for. Genuine motivation cannot fully develop when it is tied to the promise of an external reward.
WHAT TO DO
Introduce your child to a new vocabulary, Chuck. It is a vocabulary of decision-making. Many children base their decisions and choices solely on the promise of instant gratification. The responsibility that you will have in this situation is to guide your child toward making decisions based on a rational assessment of gains and losses.
Each time your child is faced with a choice, they must ask the question: “What am I willing to lose for the sake of what I will gain?” Help your child adopt a plus and minus system of understanding and balancing possible gains and losses. It could be as simple as asking, “If I don’t help dad with the yard work, what will I gain and what will I lose?” Your child will ultimately realize that he is gaining an afternoon of freedom, but will learn that he is choosing to damage trust and cohesion in the family. This is an important understanding not only for the short term repercussions with the family, but also for his long term development in how he will participate in creating and maintaining future relationships in his adult life.
The same plus and minus system also applies to school, where your child has the choice of doing poorly or doing well. When using the gains and losses strategy in this context, stick to the responsibilities that apply to all courses, such as not completing homework. We all have the right to experience failure, but if a student chooses to do poor work, he or she needs to understand that the choice has been made for both short-term (in school grades) and long-term (in life opportunities) losses for the minimal gain of avoiding work.
After you discuss these gains and losses, work with your child to develop her own definitions of doing well and doing poorly in school, then do the same for the responsibilities she has at home with the family. These can be different subjects and may change during the school year. This will give your child a measuring stick for his choices. Write down your short-term and long-term expectations and have your child clearly set out the losses he should be choosing. Giving up an afternoon to yard work in order to be a contributor to a happier home life is a loss worth taking.
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