Q: My wife has a habit of giving our very stubborn and dramatic (lots of whining, moping, and tantrums) 6-year-old daughter “prizes” for doing what she is told. Last Sunday, for example, Carrie didn’t dress appropriately for church. We told her she had to change. She had a meltdown. She collapsed on the floor, weeping. Without consulting with me, my wife told her if she would wear an appropriate outfit, she would give take her to the store after church and buy her something she wants. I think this is wrong, but my wife insists that it doesn’t hurt to do this every so often. The problem, however, is that she doesn’t do it “every so often.” She does it several times a week! Help!
A: I agree wholeheartedly with you where this business of “prizes” is concerned. It should go without saying (but it seems that when it comes to childrearing, nothing goes without saying these days) that children should be taught do the right thing — in this case, obedience to parental instructions — simply because it is the right thing to do. Another way of saying the same thing: Children need to learn that good behavior is its own reward. Your wife is obviously a warm-hearted person with the best of intentions, but good parenting intentions can create a monster in the long haul.
Teachers often tell me that one reason so many of today’s children are difficult to motivate is because they are accustomed to receiving rewards for obedience, being responsible, not misbehaving, and so on.
Likewise, researchers have discovered that rewards often produce a paradoxical effect: to wit, they often lead to counterproductive long-term effects. Give a child rewards for doing his schoolwork and he becomes, over time, less and less motivated to do his schoolwork. Like almost all ideas based on bogus self-esteem theory, the idea that good behavior deserves reward has been a flop.
Indeed, rewards often “solve” problems in the short term. In the long run, however, they risk contributing to even more disobedience, more problems with motivation, more tantrums, etc. Where Carrie is concerned, if your wife doesn’t cease and desist this foolishness, I predict a steady escalation of Carrie’s whining, moping, and general soap opera behavior when she doesn’t get her way. (Full disclosure: I flunked fortune-telling in graduate school.)
I’m “siding” with you where this matter of prizes is concerned, but I need to point out that if you and your wife don’t close ranks where Carrie is concerned, and soon, her teen years stand a better-than-average chance of being a nightmare.
A word to the wise, as they say.
Send email to family psychologist John Rosemond at email@example.com.