Risk & Reward

Currency. We all need it and we all use it, even with our children. No, I’m not talking about how painfully expensive it is to have a child, or two, or three. That is obvious. What I am talking about here is the non-monetary currency that all parents use in order to get our children to do what it is that we are wanting from them. C’mon admit it, you do it too.

We are all motivated by one form of currency or another. The reflection that we must make as parents is determining when and how to employ this method with our children. Everyone uses currency, but how it is used is critical to setting the child up for genuine success. Together we will explore a few scenarios that will demonstrate the importance of intentional implementation when going the currency route.

There are a few specific situations in which using currency with your child is likely to cause more harm than good. These include eating, toileting and taking responsibility. We are going to set each of these up into a scenario to help demonstrate how the can have unintended consequences that eventually undo the exact lesson you are hoping to teach.



What you might say: “If you eat one bite of broccoli and one bite of chicken you can have ice cream after dinner.” The intention here is clear, you want your child to consume at least a little bit of healthy food and you figure that ice cream calories are better than no calories at all. Nobody wants their child to starve.

What your child learned: You are really concerned about food and this is a way to wield a bit of power over you. They throw a fit about dinner and refuse to eat; you repay that behavior with a treat or by making them a new dinner that they like. They know that you care more about them eating than about the quality of foods they eat.

What you can do instead: First of all, the whole family should eat the same thing. Your child needs to see you eating the same foods that she is eating. Serve your child realistic portions. Each portion should be no bigger than the size of your child’s fist. Start by eliminating dessert foods in the house for a little while so that they aren’t even an option. Allow your child to eat until she is full and let dinner be the last food consumed in the day. If your child cleans her plate at dinner and is still hungry later, offer a healthy snack. If your child did not finish her dinner and wants other food later, let her know that you observed that she didn’t eat her dinner and that must be why she is hungry. Remind her that finishing dinner is important for having a full tummy and she can try again at breakfast tomorrow but the kitchen is closed for tonight.

Why it works: We are all just mammals meeting our basic needs. This means that, unless your child has an identified medical condition, she is not going to starve. She may refuse to eat several dinners in a row to see if you will cave and offer a treat. But, ultimately, she will eat the food she is served and the less focus you put on how much she eats the less she will try to use it as a means of getting her way. The hard part for you will be knowing that she is going to sleep hungry. Just remind yourself that she is the owner of her body and she does have to be empowered to take care of it on her own.



What you might say: “Every time you poop in the potty, I will give you a cookie.” I get it. Cleaning up poop sucks. You want it to be over with as soon as possible and you will do anything to move the process along.

What your child learned: What your child has learned is that he is not really the owner of his body, you are. Pooping in the toilet is something that he does to please mom and dad but it is meaningless to him. The fact is, the reward for pooping in the toilet is being clean and not smelly. Your child will never be able to retain this understanding if he is being given extrinsic rewards for something that requires internal motivation.

What you can do instead: Nothing. Quietly do the laundry and return it to the dresser. Say nothing to your child about having accidents. When he successfully poops in the toilet, do NOT reward him. I encourage you to refrain from celebrating in any way because the celebration makes it about you instead of him. What you can do is help your child link this action to the consequences that it has for him. “Now you will be nice and clean when we go to the park. That must feel good.”

Why it works: Eventually everyone uses the toilet. As I have told many parents before, “He will not be in pull ups at the prom.” You can trust that your child will master this skill. Some children master it by age two and some children do not master it until age five. The only thing that your input on the matter can do is make it take longer and be more difficult. Every time you make a negative remark about your child’s accident and every time you reward your child for a toileting success, you are guaranteeing that the process will be a bigger challenge. This is an area where you simply have to trust, observe, and let go of the fact that you cannot control this process.


Taking Responsibility

What you might say: “If you pick up all of your toys I will buy you a new doll at Target.” You want your child to be respectful and responsible and you don’t want to spend your life cleaning up her messes. Fair enough.

What your child learned: Respect isn’t important, but being respectful so that I can get stuff is important. This one is all about having the right motivation. Do you want your child to be a good person on the off chance that being good might be rewarded or do you want your child be a good person because it is important to be a good person? Doing the right thing shouldn’t be motivated by getting something in return, unless that thing is a feeling of satisfaction that comes from behaving respectfully and being in charge of one’s self.

What you can do instead: At my house, we spend a lot of time discussing the importance of taking care of our responsibilities before we give ourselves rewards. We do this by building our responsibilities into our routines. My daughter is allowed to watch a DVD every day while I prepare dinner. However, this is not something that happens right when we get home from school. First she must gather eggs from the chicken coop and she must ensure that her room is tidy and her belongings are put away properly. Sometimes she throws a fit about cleaning up her own mess. She is more than welcome to be upset, but she has to stay in her room if she is screaming and she is welcome to join us or watch a DVD once she has picked up her mess. No compromises. Sometimes she misses out on the DVD because she spends thirty minutes crying. To which I might say, “I noticed that you missed out on your DVD today. Maybe tomorrow you can go right to cleaning up your toys so that you have plenty of time to watch something.”

Why it works: Instead of baiting her by saying, “if you do this I’ll give you that” I emphasize her responsibility instead of the reward. A frequently spoken quote in our house is, “When we take care of our responsibilities, then we get to give ourselves special rewards.” Ultimately what you want your child to understand is that nobody else has the responsibility of taking care of their messes. Nobody likes being with a person who passes off all of their mess onto someone else. This behavior works only through consistency and an understanding that your child is going to push back on this and that may sometimes mean hours of her screaming. It isn’t fun but there is no more important message we can imprint in our children than, “You are responsible for yourself and your actions.”


Taking these approaches requires being able to stomach some very hard moments with your child that are likely to repeat themselves and test you to your greatest limit. The reward for taking this risk is huge though. You want your child to be challenging you now and learning that you have a firm limit. Trust me, you want them to learn this now so that you don’t have to worry about it ten years from now.

~ by vegucationmama on June 12, 2012.

3 Responses to “Risk & Reward”

  1. Regarding the potty training – I think it is acceptable to comment on a soiled condition – “Oops – can’t sit on Auntie’s sofa with poopy pants – better sit on the floor this time.”

  2. This is fantastic. I’ve never been one to bribe and, while we’re not actively potty training yet, I never liked the idea of giving them a great after they had been successful. That just external uses the reward and teaches hem to do hints to receive, whether actual treats or praise.

    I’d ideally like my kid to do things for real reasons and not for bribery. We make cleaning fun, and we don’t treat food like something that has to be gobbled up to eat something sweeter. All food is equal, regardless of sweetness level 🙂

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