Thoughts on Children and Rewards for Normal Behavior

vintage: children with dolls by freeparking on Flickr!A few days ago, I took my son to get a haircut (mostly because he got a piece of gum in his hair in the park, we had to cut it out, and his hair looked disastrous afterwards, beyond our ability to fix unless we shaved his head). He’s a bright and observant two year old boy (just shy of three), and so he often watches what others are doing to learn more about how people act.

The only other customer in the entire shop was a six or seven year old boy and his mother, who came in shortly after us. My son got up on the chair and sat there quietly as his hair cut began and he mostly just watched what the other boy was doing.

The boy proceeded to throw a temper tantrum as his mother tried to cajole him into getting a haircut. Finally, she promised to get him a new Webkinz if he was “a very good boy” during his haircut. After that, the boy immediately brightened up and sat down for his haircut.

My son watched this and remembered it. After we left the hair cut place, he said that he was a good boy during his hair cut and that he wanted a new car. I told him no, and he started to get really upset and said that the other boy got a toy for getting his hair cut.

I sat him on my lap and we talked through it for a while. I told him that grown ups don’t get toys just because they get their hair cut or they make their bed or any normal thing they might do during the day. These are the things that you do because you’re supposed to do them. I’m not sure how much of this my son understood, but some time sitting on his dad’s lap and some quiet and calm conversation seemed to calm him down and we went on with life.

He didn’t get a car, though.

When I was a child, things were too lean much of the time to get rewards for everyday behavior, and I knew that and largely respected it. The problem came about when my parents would get a windfall of some sort. When that happened, they often wanted to share the windfall with the kids – and that usually meant that I would get some stuff.

When that happened, particularly when I was young (six or seven), I would do exactly what that boy at the barbershop did: I’d throw a fit when my parents made an ordinary request of me, and my parents, knowing they had a windfall to share, would offer to get me something if I behaved.

What did I learn from this? I learned the same thing that the boy at the barbershop learned – a material reward is an appropriate outcome for normal day-to-day behavior. That’s a very dangerous lesson to learn.

This lesson stayed in my mind and traveled with me into adulthood, where I basically just rewarded myself over and over again with stuff. I’d buy things for simply making it through a workweek. I’d buy things just because I finished a project at work. I’d buy things because I “survived” an uncomfortable situation.

Those unnecessary purchases were a big reason I wound up in financial trouble. The rewards were the “norm” in my life – and they were expensive. It wasn’t until I realized that this “norm” was dragging me down – and went through the hard process of breaking that pattern – that things started to turn around for me.

Now I’m a parent, and I have my own children to raise. I understand quite well the temptation to buy those children everything they could want and often it takes personal willpower to resist it.

But then I think about the boy throwing the temper tantrum in the barbershop, and I think back to my own mistakes, and I realize something important: it’s my job as a parent to not have my children associate good but normal behavior with material rewards. Being a good and well-mannered person should be expected and normal – and it should be an example that I set for them.

Associating normal behavior with material gains does nothing more than set my children up for a life of overspending – a life that keeps them from reaching for their real dreams.

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