Children - Bargain Counter Goodness
( Originally Published 1916 )
WOULD you pay your child ten cents a week as a reward for doing his school lessons regularly and neatly?
This question came up at a meeting of mothers when one of those present told of her experience with her eleven-year-old son. The boy was doing very good work in school, but the teacher complained that his home studies were not as carefully and as regularly prepared as they should have been. The mother spoke to the boy; he claimed that he had no time to do what the teacher required of him. After school he had to practice his music for an hour, and he had to play—and he wanted to read. He was very fond of reading and read a great deal that had nothing to do with school work.
"If I give you ten cents a week," she had asked him, "will you do your lessons every day? "
"Goody! " the boy had exclaimed; and he was true to his word. In a short time he was at the head of his class and no one complained.
A number of mothers present were delighted with this easy way of getting big results.
But after a little discussion we all had grave doubts as to whether the results were really as big as they seemed or whether the price was really as low as it seemed.
The first objection that occurs to the mother's plan of buying the child's attention to his required work, is that of motive. It is often necessary to present to the child a promise of reward for doing something.
The argument for rewards seems reasonable enough. We know that a child's character is very largely founded on the habits he acquires; we therefore want the child to acquire good habits. We know also that the young child cannot be expected to do the right thing simply because he is told that it is " right." And we know that unless the child does the " right " thing again and again and again, he will not acquire the desired habits. The problem is therefore one of making the child do what you want him to until the habits are established.
Now the child will repeat actions only if they are associated with pleasurable feelings. We have seen that the child will lie, if he finds that it " pays "—and he will likewise " obey " if he finds that that pays. The work that is required of the child must therefore be so interesting in itself that the child would rather do it than leave it. undone. Or the results of the work must be so satisfying that the child would be quite willing to do what is required. Or, finally, the reward he receives for the work must be sufficiently attractive to encourage him to overcome all the disagreeable features, or all the difficulties.
But we must make the reward in keeping with the character of the task, and at the same time of a kind that raises the child's outlook to the highest level that he is capable of reaching.
With a very young child, the tasks that give the parent the most concern are of a kind that can hardly be made interesting in themselves. You want the child to learn to dress himself, or to undress; you want him to put his toys away, or to hold his fork and spoon correctly. The person who can make these arts interesting by playing a game with the child while he is getting the habit of handling the materials, will solve the problem almost before becoming aware of it. But if you cannot make dressing a game, it is perfectly legitimate to offer the child the kind of reward that he will appreciate in return for accomplishing what is at best a rather stupid piece of work.
As soon, however, as the child is able to dress himself without effort, the rewards should be withdrawn. This now becomes a regular and necessary part of the day's existence and does not call for commendation or other notice.
As the child becomes older, and as new difficulties present themselves, he will again and again need assistance and encouragement in overcoming obstacles and in solving problems. For years it will be necessary to keep before the child's mind the thought of the pleasure and satisfaction that regularly result from doing what is required. But the pleasure and satisfaction need not remain what they were to the child of three or four. With every advance in the child's mental development it becomes increasingly practicable to raise the nature of the reward from the lowest material plane—of a cookie or a toy—to the higher levels of appreciation.
When it comes to doing school work, it may be assumed that the child is capable of appreciating the value of what he is doing. He certainly should not be led to suppose that he is studying for the benefit of his parents or his teacher. The reward for good work ought to be in some way connected with the results of the work, or with the satisfaction of achievement, or with the pleasure of the work itself. When it is necessary to offer a boy or girl money or candy for doing the work required by the school, there is something wrong either with the school or with the home—or possibly with both.
In the particular case discussed, the boy was bright enough, for the teacher was entirely satisfied with everything except his failure to do the home work regularly and carefully. He was able to get a " passing" mark even without giving home time to his school work. Under the circumstances it would seem, that a boy like this could certainly be reached on a higher plane than that of ten cents a week. He could be reached by an appeal to his instinct of workmanship, to the sense for completeness or wholeness in a day's work. Or he might have been reached by an appeal to his ambition to excel his past records, to show his ability to keep up a high standard; or even by an appeal to the desire for high marks or the approval of the school mentor, his teacher. It might have saved something of the dignity of the work if the reward had been made more remote. For example, the reward could have taken the form of a much desired object postponed to the end of the term.
To pay cash for doing that which a child should learn to do as a matter of course is an almost certain way of debasing his standard of values. A child should learn that some things are done for money or other material reward ; but that there are other things whose doing must bring their own rewards, either at once or at some later time. It were better that some things be not done at all than that the child should acquire the bargaining attitude towards them.
Here was a boy who claimed he had no time to do what was required of him and apparently he made out a good case. Upon the offer of money, however, he was able to find time. Where did this time come from? He had to keep up his music practice; and he would not reduce his reading time. As a result of this bargain, he cut down his outdoor play. Was that worth doing?
Rewards, like punishments, must do more than accomplish an immediate purpose. We must look ahead to see the effects of our rewards and punishments upon the child's character, and not merely count for the day's convenience. Rewards and punishments are strong factors in developing the child's scale of life's values, and we owe it to the child to raise the standard of his motives as rapidly as his development will permit.