My husband is a natural when it comes to principle-based parenting. (That should be a whole post in itself.) Rather than laying down all the rules, he’ll state the principle and ask our boys how they propose we should go about implementing it. Here’s how that went down recently.
Dad: I need you to listen to what I’m asking you to do and follow those directions. What can I do to help you listen? Would it help if I talk more quietly or loudly or what? What do we need to do?
Son: Probably give me treats. (Other suggestions included buying lego sets and taking trips to Chuck E Cheeses.)
My husband and I gave each other wide-eyed looks.
I’ve written before about intrinsic motivation and positive reinforcement, and even had an expert panel weigh in on the issue. His response was basically one big caricature of everything I oppose philosophically. “Buy me stuff and maybe I’ll do what you say.”
I took a deep breath and responded:
“You know all the things Mom and Dad do for you — like making you dinner and reading you stories? We don’t do that because anyone is giving us stuff. We do that because we love you. And when you help out or follow directions, that shows love too.”
I wondered if he’d get it. He thought about it. He’s a very thoughtful — and very loving — six year-old. And it seems that he did.
That’s not to say that we never use rewards in our home, but I just don’t believe in responding to child behavior like a dog trainer. I’m not keen on carrying a bunch of treats around in my pocket and popping them in little mouths for each and every act of obedience.
Beside the fact that over-the-top bribery reduces intrinsic motivation (and the contents of my wallet), it also fails to teach about the real motivators behind behavior in the context of social relationships.
I observed in a kindergarten classroom some time ago where the teacher’s attention-getting phrase was “Show Me Love”. It was essentially the same as the “Give Me Five” technique I use, but was grounded in an understanding (which I’m sure was clearly discussed at the beginning of the year) that when you love and respect someone, you show that in the way you treat them. It wasn’t just about the act of good listening, it was about good social skills and respect.
There are many ways we can influence child behavior, but do we always take the time to teach them why? To tell them what they communicate with their choices and how those choices influence other people?
It’s something that’s been on my mind.
What do you do to help the children you love and teach to connect behavior to relationships?
Student Mom (Jenn) says
Wow! What an awesome post!
I have NO idea how to get my teen to assist in anyway! I don’t want to throw a fit because who does that?! But really! I could have a proper one when I walk into the kitchen I cleaned before leaving the house to find a disaster when I get home. So I do the right thing by yelling up the stairs that the kitchen needs to be sorted out into the state it was when he came down! Hey… I’ve been fighting this battle for ten years. One teen leaves the house and the other teen becomes a teen! It never ends. Don’t judge me! Anyway… the baby is being taught – sink! Clothes basket! Please! Thank you! etc. At least my last teen will be clean, if a little sulky (girl this time).
Alex | Perfecting Dad says
I am always hesitant when I read articles like this, because I’m a big believer in punishments and rewards, and behaviourism in general to a limited, but important degree. I wrote a rewards piece Rewards Without Psychological Damage: An Essential Tool for Parents specifically because I think many people latch on to either “use rewards” like a dog trainer, or “never use rewards” because kids aren’t dogs and it ruins the child. I like how you recognize that rewards are a right way of teaching. I think of intrinsic motivation as self-rewarding behaviour and the trick is to either instill or nurture that self-rewarding aspect if it can be done.
Also I love your mention of priniple based parenting (not sure that I’ve heard that term before but I’m going to use it now). The principle is important, not the rule or the tactic or the limit. Superb. But I have a question for you. Why is the principle that your child has to listen and follow directions? Thanks for the great post.
I had a feeling I’d get a question about that, Alex! I hesitated to use the word “obedience” because it can be misconstrued by some. I’m not in favor of blind obedience, but I do think that as a general principle it needs to be understood. We teach our kids that they need to show respect to their parents and teachers by being helpful and following directions (obedience), but we also teach them to speak up respectfully when they disagree or have reasonable objections. For example, when they’re playing and we ask them to leave, they may throw a fit. We may explain that we can’t fix a fit and we’ll have to be going, but if they ask politely (“I’m almost finished, could I have five more minutes, please?”) we could likely be flexible. I suppose the larger principle is showing RESPECT to parents, teachers, and other authority figures. For now, that often means being obedient, but when they need to disagree, that too must be done with RESPECT and not by whining, eye-rolling, or simply ignoring. I was always taught that you don’t have to agree with everyone, but you should be respectful of everyone. I’m fine with children disagreeing if they can do it RESPECTFULLY. That’s the way I look at it, anyway!
Alex | Perfecting Dad says
Haha, by the way we also had a “problem” where one of our children was not really helping very much. It isn’t really the child’s fault, as such, at least not at first. Just like a fish probably doesn’t notice water much even though they’re immersed in it, humans don’t notice things by default. It takes some waking up. We got our kid to help out by explaining a rock star’s life. That all a rock star has to do is show up and sing. They get their food brought, their hair combed, their shoes put on, their luggage carried, etc ,etc. Then we said that a rock star has to pay millions for those services , but normal people just do those simple things themselves. It was pretty easy because then he noticed easily that he was behaving like a king or a rock star. And now we have a cool trigger to remind us of the conversation. When someone in the family leaves a mess or forgets to do something we all just say with a smile “Wow, it’s a pleasure to meet the newest rockstar in town!” The kids tell the parents that too, and they love it.
Susan Case says
Wonderful post! Pinning this.
I love the “Show Me Love.” I think I’ll create a program around that at my house.
I also love the “show me love” idea and wonder if you might could expand on that a little and help us learn to use that in our home? I have twin three year olds and listening to me, picking up toys when I ask, even sitting at the table and eating is proving to be a little hard for them right now. And I’ve been having a hard time figuring out an age appropriate/gentle way to teach respect and listening. Thank you for this post and the “show me love” idea.
I’d love to do that! Thanks for the suggestion! It make take a bit to get to it though,so remind me if you don’t see it in the next few weeks!
Jill @ A Mom With A Lesson Plan says
A while back my 5 and 7 year old became increasingly rude, impatient and demanding towards me. At first I didn’t really say much, just asked them to retry their statements. I was careful not to respond to the behavior as I didn’t want it to continue. It went on longer than I expected (a week or so) and became worse and worse. Finally I sat them down and explained where I was coming from. I pointed out the people who I spend time with and explained how I carefully choose those people. I spend time with them because they are respectful to me, they speak to me kindly, they show me love and they offer me help when I need it. I do all of those things for them in return. I ended the conversation by asking them who I spend the most time with (them of course) and how I expect to be treated by them. Their behavior changed instantly. All it took was an honest explanation of my feelings.
What a great way to respond, Jill!
It’s a very interesting and complicated subject. I have always hated the whole reward system that seems to be key to parenting these days. The reward charts with the stickers have never entered our house. They did become part of my sons live (he is now 7) when he started school and could get ‘reward points’ for ‘golden time’. We have always told our kids (we have a 4 year old girl as well) that we are a team. We even have a name for our team. I do always reward them, but I don’t tell them they are going to get the reward if they do a certain thing. So say they lay the table when I am cooking, than I will say when we sit down for supper: you have been such brilliant helpers, so I am going to make you a special pudding.. Or something along those lines. I do believe that we can teach our children to be good from their hearts, because it feels good to be kind and to be helpful. I am sure I’ll be changing my tune when they hit their teens, but I am enjoying it for now…
I’ll bookmark your site and will pop back another day…
As always a beautiful post. I had an interestingly similar experience not long ago with my 9 yr old son. My stand on intrinsic motivation vs external motivation is similar to yours. We can continue to try to teach our kids but they are surrounded by a world full of materialism. It’s a swim upstream for any parent. As I said in my blog, it does get through but we just have to keep paddling!!
Love the ideas here (both yours and some of the responses). Very timely for our 10 year old daughter, who feels that since she turned 10 we have given her too much responsibility. In reality, she has very little responsibility and I know that is our fault as parents. We are trying to correct this but I think using some of these techniques will give us a gentle way to ease into it and help her understand what we are trying to accomplish. Thank you!
Ann Ricketts says
Wonderful post!! Thank you again, for such a respectful approach to children and parenting. I believe, with my whole heart, that rewards that come from within (intrinsic) are the ones that last forever. They are the best motivators for future behavior. To feel connected to a family through chores, responsibilities, respectful behavior…is to say to a child, “You are so important to our family and we expect you to be a contributing member.” This is one of the best gifts (expectations) a parent could give their child.
Laura Witcher says
Great story! I really wish that all parents and other adults who worked with children could read all of this and see the benefit of treating your children with kindness and respect really pays off in the building of family bonds or in the building of community among little or young learners.