Chart Number 160

February 27, 2015

By Ekta R. Garg

People often use the “carrot-on-a-stick” method to convince kids to do something. Finish your dinner and you’ll get dessert; do your homework and you can stay up later; practice your violin and you can watch an extra TV show. It seems like a simple tactic, right?

It is…and isn’t. Especially when you have kids who look at the carrot and kind of shrug.

Last week we began the process of getting an expander for Six. This whole thing required three appointments. In the first appointment the hygienist put rubber bands around the molars that would support the expander. During the second appointment the hygienist measured Six’s molars. The last appointment constituted the actual installation of the expander, which is a small frame attached to a pair of metal rings that got glued to Six’s gum line.

I’ve never had orthodontics and neither has my husband, so this entire situation has been brand new for all of us. When Six went in for her rubber bands during the first appointment, one hygienist sat down with us afterward and handed us a credit card-like item. This card had—I kid you not—“Brace Bucks” written on it. Apparently signing up for Brace Bucks allows the cardholder to earn points for performing tasks like brushing properly, getting to appointments on time, and getting good grades in school. You then cash in the points for prizes.

On the way home from that first appointment the kids asked what the card was for. I explained it to them, and they seemed less than impressed.

“The points will probably be for some plastic toy,” Eight said, and she laughed. Six laughed right along with her.

Since then the kids have asked about the Brace Bucks once. I told them I would go online and look at it, and I probably will. At some point. But since neither of them seem too motivated to find out about them—particularly Six, and these are technically her Brace Bucks—I’m not highly motivated to put the Brace Bucks website high on my priority list.

I started thinking about the whole idea of motivating kids with objects and rewards. I first started trying this when I wanted to potty train the girls. I kept charts of when they successfully used the potty—a suggestion I’m sure I either read online or that the pediatrician probably suggested—and then I would put stickers on the charts to indicate positive bathroom experiences.

The funny thing is that even back then the kids didn’t seem too impressed with the stickers. If I have to be perfectly honest, I got way more excited about the stickers than they did. They would watch me put the stickers on our homemade charts, and then they’d skip along to blocks or crayons.

They’ve never really been sticker kids.

Through the years I’ve tried motivating the kids with other things, and I’ve always gotten the same lackluster response from them on the actual item of motivation. They actually seem more content to accomplish whatever the task is. We might complain and cry along the way. We might declare that it’s the worst day of our lives. But the thought of a toy or a dessert or something else doesn’t really get the kids’ motors running.

Their swimming teacher also pointed this out. At the end of one lesson she and I were talking about introducing something new, and the teacher made the comment that trying to use a motivating reward often had the opposite effect it did compared to other kids.

I found it interesting that she’d made a similar observation. When the Eight and Six joked about the Brace Bucks, I thought again about the whole concept of motivation.

I realize that as parents we’re juggling a lot. Many of us have jobs, whether part-time, full-time, or freelance. A good number of us have spouses and homes to take care of. Most of us have to worry about bills and coordinate after-school activities, doctors’ appointments, playdates, practices, meals, and try to schedule time to eat and breathe in there too. And maybe shower.

It’s so easy to pick a prize to make the kids run on the weekday hamster wheel just a little bit faster. The irony is that we’re trying to get them to move faster so we can keep them on track. Make sure they get to all the places they need to be on time. Help them hit all their benchmarks every day.

I’ve never really believed in offering short-term rewards for long-term change, though. My parents didn’t raise me that way, and I don’t approach problems with my own children like that. The accomplishment should be enough. Getting the math problem right should provide its own reward.

Part of the problem with kids today (and I realize I’m setting myself up for some criticism with this) is that they expect gratification in the short term. Sure, we can blame technology and the digital age, but I think parents also have to take some responsibility for heaping stickers—and ribbons and “participant” trophies—on our kids. There’s nothing wrong with nudging our kids to succeed and feel satisfied with that success.

That should be enough. The ribbons and stuff should come as an emotional bonus. I realize we’ll probably run into situations when they want a reward right away. In those situations I hope I can steer them back to the satisfaction of hard work paying off.

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