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On rewards, incentives, and unconditionality

My son, Gabriel, will be four in two months. As a generally mellow child who made it through the “terrible twos” and “horrific threes” without much excitement beyond the odd tantrum, Gabriel has shocked us in the past two months with what I’m coming to understand is typical four-year-old behavior.

I tried to take this developmentally-appropriate behavior in stride and handle statements like “You’re a mean mommy and I’m very mad at you,” made because I won’t let him have lollipops, chocolate milk, or some other dessert-like food for breakfast, for example, with grace and patience. Then, Friday before last, I reached my breaking point.

One of the major tenets of Attachment Parenting is also the hardest to implement: Practice Positive Discipline. The center of this Principle is understanding the unmet need (for food, sleep, attention, cuddles, whatever) and meeting that need to ward off discipline issues proactively. I support this approach and have tried to use it as much as I can with Gabriel & Lily. Where I struggle is with situations like last Friday when I’ve missed an unmet need and some pretty crazy behavior ensues.

So my Mom and nephew had just left Friday morning and Gabriel had stayed up late the night before with them, so he was tired and sad. I tried to block off the day for fun activities that would not ask too much of him while he was feeling this way. So he asked to go on a bike ride. I agreed, got everyone’s shoes, got the dog and we set off. We got a few blocks from home and Gabriel asked if he could go knock on a friend’s door to see if he could come out to play. I agreed, because, again, I had no plans for our morning. Then crisis! Gabriel’s friend wasn’t home. Cue screaming, throwing himself on the ground, angry words directed at Mommy (who is omnipotent and should have therefore been able to make his friend be home with a snap of my mighty fingers!) and complete refusal to continue with the bike ride or go home.

Before little sister and pup, I would have just picked Gabriel up and taken him home. But I couldn’t, especially with the bike and a now-distressed Lily, who decided she must be really upset if her brother was. I lost my cool at this point. I worried about what the neighbors would think. I whined to myself about why I try so hard to be a good parent and am rewarded with THIS. I got angry. I told Gabriel sternly to get his behind back on his bike and head for home. I didn’t yell, but I don’t often, so a stern voice was just enough to send Gabriel into a fresh round of sobs. He did get on his bike, but he also screamed the whole way home, increasing my agitation about what the neighbors were thinking, and was loud enough that Matt, who heard the commotion when we were several houses away, came running out to see if someone was injured.

He was hysterical enough at this point that he went upstairs and went to bed, but he was still off when he woke up several hours later and I was completely shattered. Not only had I contributed to the issue with my stern words, but I felt completely guilty that I was more worried about what the neighbors would think than about my son’s obvious upset. And I felt like I didn’t have a single tool I could use in the heat of the moment to diffuse the situation.

So I mentioned this to a friend and she told me how she’d been using a simple reward system to teach her daughter of the same age how to appropriately express her feelings. This sounded reasonable and I jumped at the chance to do something to put an end to these types of outbursts. So I talked to Gabriel about not having fits and instead expressing his frustration with words so that I could help him. And I told him that on days when he was able to do that, I would give him the reward of a special kind of soy milk that he really likes, and which he calls “purple milk” because of the container it comes in.

Within 24 hours, I knew this was the wrong approach for my son. I was gone most of the first day, but my husband mentioned that Gabriel asked several times if he was being “good enough” to get his purple milk. These questions continued in the coming week and then, to my absolute horror, I found myself using the threat of revoking the purple milk when I saw a tantrum coming on. The worst part of the whole thing is that the tactic, and the threats, completely worked–he didn’t throw a single fit.

But something didn’t feel right about this. I don’t like threats, and I did in my heels when I feel like someone is threatening me to try to motivate me to do something. I want Gabriel to grow up doing the same, and I also want him to know that it’s OK for him to express his strong feelings instead of holding them inside in favor of getting a reward at the end of the day. And I want him to worry first and foremost about being a happy little boy, and not about being a good little boy.

Although each near-miss tantrum was accompanied by a discussion of how to say you’re angry (along the lines of using words instead of screaming or hitting, hitting a pillow if you too angry to talk, etc.), I realized that I didn’t like the message that I was sending to someone who may just be too young to understand the larger message about communication: strong emotions are bad and should not be shown.

I know some proponents of incentives and rewards will tell me that I did not implement the reward correctly to get the behavior I was hoping for without discouraging my son from expressing his emotions. I don’t disagree with you. But I think in the end, this system of rewards didn’t sit well with me and I should never have tried it in the first place because of that.

If I needed any more confirmation, this morning I got yet another fantastic Daily Groove in my inbox. The Big Lie, as it was titled, talks a lot about the folly of trying to control someone else’s behavior and instead suggests adjusting your attitude. It also talks a lot about something near and dear to my hear: the concept of unconditional love. Scott Noelle is a genius for many reasons, but mainly because he knew that I was out here, desperately needing advice on this situation, and without having a clue who I am, he provided just the advice that I needed.

Rather than worry about what the neighbors were thinking when Gabriel was throwing a fit, I should have been more focused on what Gabriel was feeling. By controlling Gabriel, I thought I could also control how I was perceived as a parent. But I can neither control Gabriel, nor control what people think of my parenting, so the whole thing was bound for disaster.

I told Gabriel yesterday morning that he could have a purple milk whenever he wanted them, and I hope to phase them out of our pantry in the near future (because they’re expensive, and have more sugar than I’d like him to have, but also because I don’t like the association with this experiment in incentives). He looked at me and asked, “Even if I throw a fit.” “Yes, even if you throw a fit, but we’re still going to work on using our words instead of throwing a fit.” He said OK, took the purple milk I was offering, and hasn’t said another word about it.

I’ll close with a thought from a great book I’m reading called Discipline Without Distress by Judy Arnall: “Positive reinforcements are more about the expression of what the sender is feeling rather than used to control the receiver.” (p 115). I don’t have the magic bullet solution to these tantrums, but I know that adjusting my feelings about them is going to be key to getting through them and maintaining both Gabriel’s self-esteem and my own.

1 Response to On rewards, incentives, and unconditionality

  1. Nicole

    Yeah…you should go read my blog today 😉 I know what you mean!!

    I’ve found that the hard part about tantrums isn’t really the tantrums, but the words I say to myself in my head when they’re happening. And yes “what will people think!?” parenting is the WORST! (did some of that today too!)

    You may recall that Simon went through a stage of massive tantrums a year ago (age 4). You may also recall that I DID lose it at him once. What ended up changing was that I changed my internal dialogue and that largely fixed the problem. Although once we were at school and I could hear a monster tantrum coming on and I turned to him and quietly and firmly asked him to stop it and told him that we don’t have tantrums at school. He stopped immediately. Think I just got lucky on that one, honestly, but maybe it helped 😉 Mostly I think he just matured. Which is kind of sad in a way!

    Hang in there. There IS no easy answer and you are doing a GREAT job!!