Incentives that Require Cooperation
The most common problem parents have with children occurs when the child does not perform a required task. Not doing chores, taking medicine, getting ready for bed, feeding pets, wearing seat belts, and doing homework are prime examples of these “acts of omission.” Surprisingly, punishments have very little power to motivate children to cooperate, but fortunately, uncooperative, irresponsible behavior can easily be corrected by making children an irresistible offer.
Which of the following statements is a punishment?
Statements 1 and 2 are punishments. Technically, a punishment is an unpleasant consequence that cannot be avoided. The child has no control over the outcome of the situation and the parent has to do all the enforcing. Statement 3 is an irresistible incentive. The child can escape or avoid the unpleasant consequence by performing the desired behavior. Privileges are not taken away, they are only withheld until the task is performed. Because the child has the option to avoid a nasty outcome, parents can throw tremendous weight into the incentive:
You can watch TV (talk on the phone, eat snacks, go outside, finish playing that game, have your prize collection of baseball cards back, listen to the stereo, play video games, cuddle your “blankee,” go to bed, or continue whatever else you are doing) after you have put away your clothes.
Irresistible incentives are guaranteed to work as long as parents withhold privileges and immediately reward children as soon as they have cooperated. If children vegetate to avoid doing a task, that is their choice. Parents are wise to watch for potent moments in the day when an irresistible incentive will have a speedy impact.
The following pointers will help parents set the most direct course for success:
When a child’s responsibilities seem to unduly frustrate him or her, even with the above approaches, it is important to investigate what might be causing the difficulty: Is the child depressed and not motivated to do much of anything? Does the child have an attention deficit disorder that makes it difficult to complete a task without constant supervision? Does the child know that he or she can “get away with things” because one or both parents wish to avoid conflict? Is the chore unreasonable? Professional assistance may be needed to identify these and other underlying problems.
NATURAL AND LOGICAL CONSEQUENCES
Whenever possible, use natural and logical consequences instead of irresistible incentives. Older children who are supposed to do their own laundry can run out of clean clothes until they are ready to put through a wash. A child who doesn’t want his food can simply wait for the next scheduled meal to eat and, perhaps, experience a little hunger. This is much healthier than creating power struggles over food.
Rewards can give an extra boost to irresistible incentives and are helpful for times of the day when powerful deadlines are not available. For example:
Even when children earn rewards for being responsible without reminders, it is still important to enforce deadlines with irresistible incentives for the tasks they will inevitably forget. Use verbal rewards liberally. Describe what you see and feel—”It’s such a relief to have the dishes done early!” Let your children overhear you say positive things about them to other people— ”The kids surprised me and had everything put away before I got home.”
Reference: See Logical Consequences: A New Approach to Discipline by Roudolf Dreikurs (NAL Dutton, 1993).