I have long eschewed using rewards to motivate my kids. The reasons are numerous but can be found well-discussed in such books as Alfie Kohn‘s Punished By Rewards, not to mention various online articles. I want my children’s motivations to be intrinsic, not extrinsic. And frankly, the reward angle can backfire if the child chooses to forgo the reward in exchange for something they’d rather do (and that you’d rather they not do).
But I will admit, and I believe Kohn does too, that there are a few rare times when rewards might give that little motivating push. One such situation is toilet learning. After all, when you are used to eliminating in any place at any time without disrupting what you are doing it might seem crazy to go without a diaper and all the hassle that entails. When Daughter was learning we ran into this situation: I knew she could do it but she often chose not to. So one day I suggested we make a poster and put up a sticker for every time she went on the potty. The day we set it up she started using the toilet. By the end of the day she had three stickers. By then the novelty was already wearing off but the habit was forming and we never looked back. She didn’t even bother asking for a sticker after that and I still have her poster with its three small stickers as a reminder of how well it all went.
Recently I have found myself in another situation where it seemed Daughter needed a little extra motivation to push herself past her boundaries. For the last year we have noticed that Daughter was getting a bit “chunky”. When I finally took over as sole food provider and stuck to a meal plan things started to get under control. However, the holidays brought a lack of meal planning combined with a lack of exercise that resulted in too much convenience food and too little activity. I was quite shocked one day to see her running around without clothes on, revealing just how much extra body fat she was sporting (I say this with the full understanding that people come in all sorts of builds and physiques, but she has always been of average weight and build so this was definitely not appropriate for her). I decided then and there I had to do something about this.
Meal planning and cutting out treats was relatively simple but the exercise part was proving frustrating. Daughter is not the most athletic child, has never shown an interest in sports, and generally prefers to devote her time to more cerebral activities. I’m certain there are some sports that she would enjoy but she stubbornly refuses to join any such classes (except skiing, but this season has been so mild that the local mountains are closed). I decided to see just how deep this lack of interest went: I offered her a bribe.
She’s been begging for this Snack Shop since before Christmas. So the other day I told her that I would buy her the Snack Shop if she completed one full session of classes in any sport she chose. Her reaction (one of immediate excitement followed by a resounding YES!) convinced me that her refusal to do classes was not based on some deep-seated anxiety but perhaps a sufficient lack of motivation to get started.
We perused the Rec Centre calendar and found the rhythmic gymnastics section. Fortunately, she had been given a “ribbon on a stick” for Christmas and loved it, so when I explained that this class would involve ribbons (and hoops) she said that was the one for her. The fates seemed to be supporting her choice when I learned that the first class had been postponed and we would not, in fact, be missing any classes. This past Thursday was her first class.
She started running around the gym before they’d even set up, and by the end of the 90 minute session was red-faced and tired, but happy. She’d made a friend and enjoyed the activities and even learned that she CAN do a somersault (despite insisting to the instructor that she couldn’t). In typical fashion for her, she announced as we walked to the car that the class was “boring” and she didn’t want to do it anymore. Funny, she gave a great impression of a kid enjoying herself during the class! So I “dangled” the Snack Shop reward and, obviously torn, she agreed to keep going. But I also suspect she may have had a case of the hungry-grumpies because since then she has been telling family that she likes the class and is looking forward to her next one. I also want to point out that I would not force Daughter to keep going if she seemed really miserable: she agreed to this arrangement and she is free to opt out at any time (with the understood consequence).
While I am a firm believer in child-led learning and giving kids the freedom to direct their path, I am also a firm believer in establishing a healthy weight at a young age and avoiding the quagmire of issues surrounding childhood obesity. I also know from experience that exercising when you are out of shape truly sucks, but that once you are in shape it feels great. So I think Daughter just needs a little help getting over that hump. She certainly had never complained before about going for hikes with me, but as she gained weight I noticed her complaining more until finally she just started to resist going at all. I really feel like this is important enough that adding a touch of bribery is quite possibly the best solution.