A general authority was in our stake a while back, and at the Saturday evening meeting he said that we should use incentives to help our children do the things they need to do. I whole-heartedly agree, and so does the research in human behavior. This can be a touchy subject when it comes to church activities, and every parent needs to decide how far they are willing to go. But incentives are often necessary to help our children choose to do the things they need to do. Remember that any behavior that repeats, is a behavior that has a payoff. When things are going well at home, and the relationship is strong, the social interaction of parents (kind words, approval, smiles, etc.) is all the reward that is needed. But, if we have damaged the relationship with coercion (such as criticism, questioning, yelling, arguing, and logic) then the social interaction is not a large enough payoff to reinforce the desired behavior. (The first step to take is to stop damaging the relationship with coercion. It is a lot easier to stop trying to coerce our children when they choose to do the things they need to do, and proper use of incentives can make that happen).
In the long run, social interactions are the most powerful reinforcers, but to get a behavior started, it often takes a tangible incentive or reward. This incentive may be a tangibe item or a desired activity. When choosing incentives, keep in mind the following characteristics that make consequences (incentives) more powerful:
|More Powerful Consequences||Less Powerful Consequences|
|Large (or more of something)||Small (or less of something)|
|Deprived (can’t get it another way or as often as wanted)|| Satiated (can get the item an easier way, or has had it enough so the child is
tiring of it)
As parents (and especially with teens), there is a limit to the power of the consequences or incentives we can provide. We therefore have to use the six characteristics above to help our children behave well. For little children, an appropriate behavior would be to eat dinner appropriately. Children often learn that they have a captive audience at the dinner table, and inappropriate eating behaviors pay off much better than appropriate behavior. So, the kids engage in all kinds of stalling behaviors and the parents try to coax their children to eat their food. A better way would be to tell the children that when dinner is served, they have 20 minutes to eat, and that a timer will be set. When they eat their food before the timer goes off, they earn dessert. For many kids, this is all it would take to eliminate stalling behavior and create good eating behavior. Of course, when the children earn dessert by eating well, then Mom and Dad should also make a few well placed (and brief) comments about how good the children ate their food. So the incentive of dessert motivated the children to eat their dinner and gave the parents the opportunity to give appropriate social rewards to an appropriate behavior.
Parents used a daily incentive to help their 7 year old son behave well in school. They created a jar with slips of paper, each listing a desired activity such as playing a special game with Mom or Dad, choosing dessert, staying up 15 minutes late, or going for an ice cream cone. In this case, the child helped decide the list of rewards that went in the jar. When the child brought home a daily report indicating good behavior all day, the child pulled a slip of paper from the jar and enjoyed the reward. If he got a good behavior report every day, then he got a special activity on the weekend. This child had a system where behavior was rated with a green/yellow/red color. Green was good, and red meant a trip to the office. This child got a yellow rating most days. When the above system was implemented, the child got green, then green, then yellow. The parents thought, “Oh well, this isn’t going to work.” Then, for the next 8 weeks, until the end of school, the child got a green behavior report every day.
In this next example, incentives helped a 12 year old boy who hated to do homework. The parents had nicely forced this child to do his homework over the years, but at 12, the boy pushed back so hard that it became a major battle. (see Behavior Principles). The boy wanted a cell phone, and the parents agreed that if he would get A’s and B’s on his next report card, that he could have a cell phone. The boy agreed to this, but didn’t do the homework. Which of the 6 characteristics of consequences (incentives) needed to be adjusted? The reward was certainly positive, preferred, and something the child was deprived of. But the incentive was not very immediate and maybe not certain. Blowing one test could move a B to a C, and then there would be no cell phone. So the parents told the child, “Make up last weeks assignments and do all your homework and class assignments for this week, and you earn the cell phone. We will know you did this by you having your planner signed by each teacher on Friday. Each Friday, when the planner is signed, you will earn the cell phone for the next week.” Well, the boy asked for Dad to order the cell phone immediately and got to work. The boy earned the cell phone and has continued doing his homework. The assignments are not all done on time, and sometime the boy loses the cell phone for a few days until he gets all the assignments completed for the previous week. BUT, most importantly, he is choosing to do his homework. When he does not, the cell phone, and not Mom or Dad, does the nagging.
Another way to use in incentives is Grandma’s Law. Grandma would say, “Eat your vegetables, and then you can have dessert.” With our kids, we can say, “First put on your shoes and jacket, and then you can go outside and play.” Use the “First-then” phrase to let your child know what must be completed before she can do the preferred activity. You can even respond with a “yes” to your child’s request by using a “Yes-when” phrase such as, “Yes, I will take you to the store, just as soon as (when) your bed is made,” or, “Yes, you can watch TV, after you finish your homework.”
If your children are having trouble doing the things they need to do, look for proper incentives to help your children do the things they should. This doesn’t mean your children need to be getting more. If we simply cut back on the huge list of things that we give our children unconditionally, and use them as incentives, our children will behave better and everyone will be happier.
Give it a try. Your reward will be a happier home and happier children who choose to do the things they need to do.
Testimonial from a Parent:
Hi Tom. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been trying your “mystery motivator* kits” this week with fantastic results. I’m still amazed at how well it works.
I’ve been doing this with Jacob and Emily. Jacob has been struggling with church related stuff all year. He especially has a hard time getting up for Seminary. I have been waking him up all year, and it literally takes me 10 minutes of constant prodding, shaking, talking, tickling, etc., to get him to budge from bed, and then he just falls asleep in the tub. He goes to Seminary with a negative attitude and feels coerced. He is now waking himself up (yea!!) every morning, and is ready for Seminary 15 minutes early. He is EXCITED to get up and see what is in his envelope every morning. He is very grateful and always thanks me.
For the past 6 months or so, Emily has had a very negative, combative attitude, and has slipped back into being comfortable screaming at me, and putting me down and saying hateful things to my face. So, the behavior I am most concerned about improving is her anger. She gets an envelope for each day she can remain calm. My definition of calm is: speak in her inside voice, and to treat others respectfully. She has been making a conscious effort to do this. She’s done this perfectly every day. I notice her holding back and biting her tongue when just one week ago she would have just rattled off some rude comment without thinking twice.
Our home has been so peaceful all week. Everyone’s getting along, they’re happy, and MOTIVATED to get their envelopes. I chose a variety of prizes, ranging from free (a 20 minute back rub, or no chores for the day), to a $20 pedicure. They have been having fun with this, and I appreciate the improved behavior.
These incentives may seem pricey to some parents, but they had to be big enough to entice my kids to work on a behavior. They really like the ‘surprise’ factor. It has been worth every penny to see them have a good attitude about what they are working on. We’ve had total peace in the home for 3 weeks! Emily had gotten an envelope every day. Jacoby has only gotten about 60% of them, due to being sick, not hearing his alarm clock, etc., but he has not said one negative thing about going to Seminary since we started this, and that was what I was shooting for. That’s huge! The side note I like about the incentives I choose is that most of them require a trip to the store. I invite them to come with me, and it gives us one-on-one time, which is an added bonus. This has dominoed into other areas as well. Everyone in the house is more positive. I’ve noticed the kids saying “thank you” more and giving compliments to each other. It’s amazing! Positive energy breeds positive energy.
* Mystery motivator is an idea from “Tough Kids Parent Book” by William Jenson