Archive for June, 2008

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No More Oreos

June 16, 2008

As I stood in line to return an item at my local IKEA, I spotted a four-year old nearby having an argument with her parents.  The adults wanted her to follow them so they could do some shopping, but the child was apparently in no mood to trudge through the enormous store.

“If you give me an Oreo, I’ll do it,” she cockily bargained with her parents.  I couldn’t help but cringe as a look of shock and recognition flitted across the mother’s face.  She realized at that very moment that her manipulation tool of choice had now been used against her!  As our eyes met across the room, she managed a trembling smile and turned back to the child.

“Uh, no honey, that’s not the way it works,” she said meekly, as she took the child’s hand and led her towards the stairs.  The child’s objections could be heard across the room.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as the child turned the table on her parents.  As you have just seen, using rewards (cookies, outings, TV… anything) as a means to manipulate behavior is devious, controlling, disrespectful, and in the end… completely ineffective and enormously damaging.

Sure, in the short-term, the offer of a reward might convince a willful child to acquiesce to the desires of the parent.  But at what price?

I think it all boils down to what phdinparenting calls “short-term” vs. “long-term” parenting.  In the short-term, bribing a child with rewards in exchange for desired behavior is a pretty effective means of controlling the outcome of a situation.  The parent obtains the requested behavior, the child receives the reward, and everyone is “happy”.  But are they, really?  What messages and perceptions will the child take with him for the long-term?

Think about a situation when you were controlled and manipulated into doing something for which you had a compelling reason not to want to do.  Perhaps your boss told you that he would give you a much-needed bonus if you fired three employees you know are a great asset to the company.  Or your spouse told you he would pay for your dream beach vacation if you lost 20 lbs. (although you  know you look and feel fine at your current weight).  You try to voice your opinion, but you’re told: “Come on, I know you really need the money/trip.”  Nobody tells you why, they just want you to do it.  How would you feel: dignified, respected, appreciated, and understood?   Or would you feel controlled, manipulated, voiceless, and defeated?

Very likely, you’ll go along with the request (because we’ve been conditioned to respond blindly to rewards).  How would you feel once you accomplished the task and received the reward?  If you’re even slightly human, you’d be left with a bitter aftertaste and an unnerving sense that you’re not really behind the wheel of your own life.  However, since you’ve been brought up in a rewards-based system, you’d try to brush off the feeling… Until the next time.  Except the next time, you’d want a bigger bonus or a longer vacation because you unconsciously recall the feeling of dissatisfaction you obtained from the previous “transaction”.

Do you want your children to grow up feeling controlled, manipulated, unimportant and powerless?  Because believe it or not, that is how they feel each and every time they perform an action in response to a bribe from you.  A devoted and well-meaning mother I know offered her son $50 if he would cut his unruly, shoulder-length red hair before posing for his Senior picture.  To the teen’s credit, he refused her bribe and posed in all his red-headed glory, but I think the damage was done the moment his mother offered the reward.  Her message to him was: “You’re not good enough the way you are.”

If you’re thinking, “I would never offer rewards for things like that!  I only offer rewards in situations that aren’t damaging to my child’s self-esteem,” consider your actions and their repercussions very carefully.  The problem does not lie in the situation nor in the reward; it lies in the power shift, the destruction of the child’s will and self-esteem, and the loss of mutual respect.

“If you finish your homework you can play video games.”  It’s a phrase uttered in households across the country.  How harmful is this statement?  On the surface, it seems harmless enough.  It even seems like it would be a great opportunity to show your child that he needs to take care of his responsibilities before he can enjoy other activities.  You pat yourself on the back and walk away, while your child grinds his teeth and stares at his Math homework.

How is your child being harmed?  First of all, he’s learning to link a behavior to a reward.  You’re creating an adult whose approach to life will be: “What’s in it for me?”.  You’re also diminishing the importance of homework (or any work, for that matter).  It’s no longer an important part of his intellectual development, but merely a means to an end (in this case, playing video games).  Thirdly, you’re not showing concern for the reasons your child doesn’t want to do his homework.  Maybe he didn’t understand the assignment, feels overwhelmed by his class load, is distracted by personal issues, or has an undiscovered learning disability.  The repercussions are many, but I think you get the picture…

What would happen if, instead of bribing your son, you took the time to ask him what is deterring him from finishing his assignment?  You would be giving him the message: “I care about you and want you to be successful.”  You might also gain some insight into the person your child is becoming, including his social situation and personal goals, and you would be in a better position to offer guidance.  The playing field would be leveled (much to the horror of many parents) and your child would have a much better chance of successfully reaching his goals.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “I’ve asked my child what the problem is, but he won’t talk to me.”  Gee, would you try talking to your boss if he has repeatedly “shut the door on you” by bribing you with rewards?  It’s up to the parents to change their way of educating their children.  It might take time to see results; after all, you have been bribing your child for five, ten, fifteen years.  But just like explaining “why” is an investment, so is finding out “why”.

Suggested reading: Punished By Rewards, by Alfie Kohn.

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Beautiful

June 13, 2008

Yesterday I wore my hair down in the classroom.  A precious 4-year old approached me, stroked my hair, and declared: “You’re beautiful.”

I dare you to find a more satisfying field of work. 🙂

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Blame

June 13, 2008

It’s all over the news: one child dies every six seconds from malnutrition and starvation in the developing world.  Their faces stare out at us from countless news articles; eyes wide, longing for salvation, and yet resigned to their cruel fate. Young and frail, they’ve suffered more in their few years of life than we ever will.

I sit at my computer, knowing that the few dollars I can send will do little to alleviate their long-term suffering.  And then I find this.

How is it that we can live in a country where people pay upwards of $15,000 to lose weight at an “it’s all about me” fat camp?  Whatever happened to strapping on a pair of tennis shoes and waddling around the block?  Or choosing the salad over the chicken pot pie?  How on earth did we even get here?  

Maybe we should blame television, with its messages of happiness through consumption.  We could accuse restaurants of serving up gargantuan portions.  We could fault Roosevelt for creating the many highways that turned us into a vehicle-dependent society.  Heck, many people blame their genes.

Well, how about blaming ourselves?  Isn’t it time we took responsibility for how our lifestyle choices affect us and those around us?

How many children could $15,000 feed???  How many lives could we save???  And why are businesses like that one thriving while children are dying?

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Explaining “Why” Is an Investment

June 12, 2008

I recently gave 10 parents a tour of the school I work for.  I explained the concepts that set Montessori apart from other pre-schools, pointed out the materials used in the classroom, and reviewed a typical day in the life of a Montessori child.  During a question and answer session at the end of the tour, a parent asked me how we disciplined the children.  I told them the truth: we don’t.  Children discipline themselves.

The Montessori philosophy requires limits (rules) in the classroom, among them: how to carry a chair, how to interact with classmates, and how to use the materials.  While a few limits are established by the guide (such as when they can eat lunch, the fact that they can’t have cartoon characters on their clothes, etc.), most limits are set by the environment.  

What does this mean?  Take, for example, the limit on how to carry a tray with materials on it.  Children who are new to the Montessori environment are formally introduced to the classroom materials before they are permitted to manipulate them, because a child who lacks self-discipline is likely to carry the tray haphazardly and run through the classroom.  When the child enters the classroom for the first time, the guide will silently demonstrate how to carry a tray correctly and how to walk in the classroom.  She will explain why the tray should be carried gently and with two hands, and she will explain with very few words that we walk in order to avoid accidents.  The child will also be shown how to clean up a spill if he does have an accident.  

At this point, the responsibility to care for the material has passed from the adult to the child.  From then on, the child will become conscious of his duty to carry the materials correctly, and will control his movements in order to prevent any accidents.  He is developing mastery over his body and actions, which is the core foundation of self-discipline.  

If he ignores this limit, the natural consequences will be that the material will fall off the tray, break, and not be replaced for a few days (or even a few weeks!).  The material, by its fragility, is setting the limits to how the child can move.  He will also have to clean up the spill (another natural consequence and a crucial aspect of building self-discipline) and he’ll have to live with the knowledge that his carelessness has prevented others in the classroom from having access to the material (a great lesson in social responsibility and collective consciousness). 

What he won’t ever experience in a Montessori environment are adults who show lack of trust by repeatedly reminding him to be careful.  Nobody will yell at him, nor will an adult clean up after him (unless broken glass is involved).  Thus, he won’t carry the tray correctly to earn points with the teacher or avoid being admonished.  He’ll do it because he knows it’s the right thing to do and he is aware of the natural consequences of his actions.  

Yes, it takes a bit more energy and dedication on the part of the adult to explain why (sometimes more than once) and to allow natural consequences to occur, but if the result is a child who is self-disciplined and can therefore be set free to safely discover the world around him, then explaining why is time well spent.

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Getting the Message Across

June 11, 2008

Last night, Tom and I were discussing the most effective ways of getting messages of awareness and change out to people who have been blinded by mass media and the government.  He argued that light-hearted videos such as The Meatrix and Grocery Store Wars were more likely to be a catalyst for change (or at least awareness) than more hard-core videos like Earthlings,because the general public would find them amusing and would tolerate watching them (even I haven’t been able to get through Earthlings in one sitting).

He has a point. The hardest part about exposing the truth is getting people to listen, and these animated videos put forth important messages without making you queasy.  But… Will these videos prove effective for inspiring actual change??  

I think most people in our society are unwilling to transform how they live or modify what they believe in until they are personally impacted and/or shaken to the core.   What is getting SUV drivers to re-think their means of transportation?  It isn’t warnings about global warming (after all, who cares if polar bears are dying?!).  It’s “the pinch at the pump”!  

I don’t exclude myself: I dated Tom – a vegetarian of 20+ years – for almost four months before I became convinced to give up all meat.  What was the catalyst?  The astounding, courageous book Fast Food Nation.  I had watched all the requisite cow cartoons an intergalactic store wars videos that Tom is a fan of, but nothing convinced me prior to reading the book.  

Would I have been as receptive to the book’s message if my mind hadn’t been primed by these deceptively cute videos?  Perhaps they play a much more important role than I give them credit for.  What do you consider the most effective means for getting your message of change across?