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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Parental Time as a Reward?

I am a fan of Rabbi Horowitz and appreciate his timely columns, practical advice, and willingness to look at controversial issues. However, I was saddened to see this advice on rewards/incentives given in a recent column on appropriate ways to reward children:

"It is important to keep in mind that rewards and incentives need not be financial in nature. For your children, your time and attention is often a far more valuable commodity than money. In fact, a friend of mine offers an hour of his time as an incentive program for his kids. Each child who earns a number of points over weeks or months for contentious attention to schoolwork/homework, or for completing chores at home gets an hour to spend with him – and he/she gets to decide how that time will be spent."

There are some things in life that I believe should be given freely. Giving time to your children is one such thing. Using time as a currency is so mind-boggling to me that I find myself with a distaste in my mouth and without the words to explain the distaste. Our children need us, even when they (say they) don't or appear not to need us. Children should not have to earn time with us. Rather, we should be 'forcing' it upon them so to speak.

Once again, I will recommend a book called Hold on To Your Kids which looks at the importance of parental attachments over peer attachments. I wouldn't rate the book as an exciting read, but it is definitely a worthwhile read. Somehow, denying a child time (the flip side of the reward coin, especially if/when other siblings are "earning" that time), seems to me like an excericse in cutting off your nose to spite your face.

So readers, if you use rewards/incentive (my regular readers know I'm not a regular chart keeper, reward giver-everything in moderation as it is said), do you vote yeah or nay? I vote Nay. I don't make my children earn their dinner, nor will I make them earn my time. They are getting it whether they want it or not.


Anonymous said...

SL, I'm with you. I think time with a parent is far too important to use as a "some time" thing, it needs to be an "all the time" thing. By using time with a parent as a reward, it just sets the wrong tone - especially sicne he states "weeks or months" are necessary to earn enough points for a single hour.

I think far too many parents would rather have "alone time" or time with other adults than spend time with their children. When I was growing up my dad made a big deal of walking to and from shul with us. That usually meant my dad got to shul around torah reading time, but while he wasn't on time for minyan, those walks meant a great deal to me and my siblings. It gave us a guaranteed 20 or so minutes each way just to talk about our interests, what was going on in our lives, politics, sports, whatever. Now that I'm older I appreciate it more because I see how parents my age often neglect their children - usually unintentionally so by talking and spending time with friends instead of their children. They let their children run around shul with friends so they can be free to have "adult conversations" or they run out of the house for minyan instead of playing and talking with their kids. My dad would often daven mincha/maariv at home to spend more time with us and when we were babies and too young to go to shul, he would go to hashkama so he could get home early for us.

I think a lot of parents are either oblivious to their childrens' needs or think other things are more important (i.e. God would rather I be on time for minyan or it's more important to discuss stocks and sports). It's important to make the time even when the kids are young so that when they're older and have more commitments (longer school days, extracurriculars, off to college, their own family) the bond is there and the pathways of communication remain open.

Anonymous said...

It goes without saying that parents need to spend time with their children. However, letting the child chose how a larger portion than usual of that time is spent can be a useful incentive.

mother in israel said...

I have said here before that the idea of reward and punishment is so ingrained in our culture that we do it almost unwittingly. At least R. Horowitz understands that material rewards lead to, well, materialism. You presented your case well, and I hope he sees it.

Ariella's blog said...

I would second that. A parent's time and attention should not be regarded as a special treat.

It is a sad fact, though, that many parents would avoid having to spend time with their children at all costs. And I mean that quite literally. Please note that I am not referring to parents who need programming for children to serve as childcare while they work. that is something else. However, many without job obligations frantically search out before camp and after camp programs to be sure they have somewhere to send their children those few weeks between school and camp. I do not doubt that one of the draws of all those hotels for Pesach is also the programming for children that will keep them entertained without parents. And the cost for this is quite high.

Do note on davening, that my husband used to take my son in the stroller along to mincha/ma'ariv. Then he took him as young child. Though my son is big enough to go himself now, he will often go along with his father. They also learn together even at the end of a very long workday for my husband.

Commenter Abbi said...

I totally agree with you. I think it's appalling to have to earn time with parent.

I think another issue, that somebody else brought up in the comments, is how this might not be so bad because "alone time" is so precious, special and necessary when there are many kids in the family.

Granted, I presently have two children with one more on the way imminently. While I think alone time is important, I don't think it's absolutely essential to bonding with children.

My daughters and I spend every afternoon together, and by that I mean we usually do something actually "together" (park or indoor play). They both get my undivided attention but I never get the feeling that it's somehow lesser because they have to share my attention. In addition, they genuinely enjoy being with each other.

So, big family or small, earning parent time is pretty much always uncalled for.

ProfK said...

In Robert Frost's poem "The Death of the Hired Man" the husband and wife are talking and say the following:

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”

“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

The wife's is the second answer and I think it applies here. Kids shouldn't have to "earn" attention and time with their parents. It shouldn't be a game of numbers. Or as the poem says, parental time shouldn't be something you have to deserve before you get it. I was there for my kids when they were growing up not because anyone was keeping track or because someone was bribing them or me. I'm still there for them. We still spend time together, as much as we all can manage. It's called being a family. It's because I love them.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion it is not instead of not spending time with a parent, but in addition to. For example, if a child occumulates many brownie point then he/she will be able to go fishing/bowling/movies or someother fun activity, while the other simblings stay home home with a second parents and do "boring" stuff. (It does not mean that family does not go as a whole unit to do these activities also) Yes, it takes a long time to occumulate these points, but that's a whole idea. This way just-the-two-of-us-fun-thing does not become a norm.

Jewish Backpack said...

I would definitely recommend reading Hold Onto Your Kids because I believe it captures the essence of what ails a generation of lost kids and offers hope of reclaiming them. The idea of using rewards and incentives to get kids to do what they need to do is fundamentally flawed. Dr. Neufeld goes into great detail in his training and teaching about the negative effects of rewards in order to induce desired behavior. He made this statement during my first training session with him and it has really stuck with me ever since, "You can consequence a child into behaving well but you can't consequence him into wanting to behave well."

According to Dr. Neufeld, a child begins to value what the parent values, e.g., working diligently on homework, being honest, getting along with siblings, etc., because the child has an appropriate attachment to the parent and wants to please him or her. Therefore, the parent-child attachment should be viewed as the primary focus and vehicle for the child's development. If you're emotionally present for the child and accept your role as "alpha" you will not need to resort to rewards to get him to do what you want . This attachment is developed naturally - over time - when the parent acts as the compass point for the child, as role model, mentor, and figure of safety.

There is a kernel of truth in Rabbi Horowitz's advice, "For your children, your time and attention is often a far more valuable commodity than money." But to exploit that inborn need for attachment in order to achieve academic or superficial behavioral goals is a form of emotional blackmail that will surely backfire. Our culture is hyper-focused on behavioral performance when we should really be putting our energy into relationship building with our children. Process can and should take precedence of product in terms of education and behavior. Dr. Neufeld would advise us to, "invite our children into our presence." And that means at every moment, not just when they are quiet and bring home good grades.

For a great audio introduction to these concepts, you can download an audio file (for $18) called "Cultivating Caring Children" from It will give you a lot of concrete information if you are asking yourself how to counter the trend of incentive-based performance training so prevalent in our schools (and homes!).

Jewish Backpack said...

Sorry, that last comment was by my husband but he logged on with my blogger account. His name is Nachshon.

Anonymous said...

Nachshon wrote so well what I couldn't find words for: There is NO proof that the rewards/punishment system produces a better human being. In fact, if you look around you, it may become obvious that the exact opposite is true. Children, just like adults, need incentives here and there to get them going. But that should be the exception, not the norm. The only thing, in my (limited or not)experience which gets children going in the direction they need (aside from Siata DiShmaya, of course), is for the children to learn very early on that THEY are responsible for their actions. Parents, no strangers, need to constantly guide the child along the right path, prodding (gently when needed, less gently when appropriate) to keep the child progressing. You can only do your best in this area and the results may not become apparent till the child is well into the teen years, or maybe even after.
I think that the reward/punishment system is a sign of weakness. We are taking away the child's free choice to do what is right. I do hold that a child needs to earn privledges, though. Driving lessons, for example (guess what we are going through) are not a given. Time with parents, on the other hand, is.

Anonymous said...

Tamiri, Nachshon--
What about ideas like "acharei hamaasim nimshachim halevavot" and "mitoch shelo lishma yavo lishma"? It seems to me (both from what Chazal say and from personal experience) that if a child learns a certain behavior because of rewards, especially at a young age, that behavior will eventually become ingrained and will be something s/he does naturally. Would you not agree?

Anonymous said...

Ora, I don't agree. Acharei hamaasim.... what are the maasim here? Parents giving rewards? Children doing what they are supposed to in order to get a reward? At what point do you stop rewarding? What if you get a kid who won't perform without the reward?
Years ago, a child's reward was his parent's pride and admiration. That was enough. And they didn't need an appointment with the parents either.
Children don't learn behavior because of rewards. They learn to work the system. Hey, maybe this is the root of all the financial messes we keep reading about here on Orthonomics: people are so used to being rewarded that real life isn't even getting in the way anymore!
I have seen FAR too many kids expect a reward for doing the right thing, because this is how they were trained. Mothers frantically shoving taffies down the kids' throats every time they go in the toilet... do you think this makes them "train" earlier? Do you know how many untrained kids are getting candies? Parents "paying" their children for good grades... what does that say to the children about their abilities? Kids being "bribed" to behave properly (sit in the supermarket trolley and I'll get you a sweet). Be a good child and I will buy you a present. Work hard and you can earn XYZ... how many times does that backfire?
I have never had success with charts or bribes or silly rewards. Of course, we tried it all. We are, after all, modern parents. After a while we realized that kids have to come into it on their own, that is part of maturing.
The same as we don't always punish bad behavior, we don't have to always reward the good. It's just life.
When all is said and done, today's younger generation is expecting far too much (mom, you HAVE to buy the kalla 3 custom sheitels etc) and it could be that the rewards system is part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

I think it was Fred Jones who said "spend time with your children now or they'll make SURE you spend time with them... in the principal's office, in the hospital, or in the courtroom".

In other words, not enough time with our kids leads to trouble at school, medical horrors like skateboarding snafus or even suicide attempts that could have been avoided, or court time -- hello mom and dad, I wouldn't have done this stupid thing if you were paying more attention to me.

The more loved and wanted a child knows he is, the less likely it is that he'll get into serious trouble.

I like the scene on "Meet the Fockers" ---- "we're Ferberizing him--- he needs to learn to self soothe." "we Fockerized our kid--- we hugged and kissed our little prince like there was no tomorrow".

Ariella's blog said...

Tamiri makes an excellent point. It is also reflected in behavior problems in schools. When the students are young, they get stickers and even candy (very, very bad idea for some)as rewards. In my son's school they even gave out cans and even 2 liter bottles of soda! But what to do then for the older kids? It takes a certain amount of maturity to appreciate the less tangible rewards like the teacher's compliment of "That is a very good question." or just the self-satisfaction of having earned a good grade. What would be better yet is feeling the thrill of discovery in learning -- something that is actually far more enjoyable than a candy.

Commenter Abbi said...

"It takes a certain amount of maturity to appreciate the less tangible rewards like the teacher's compliment of "That is a very good question." or just the self-satisfaction of having earned a good grade. "

I don't know, my two year old already responds very well to verbal praise, so I don't think it's a matter of maturity. I think it's a matter of putting it into practice very early on.

I think the method of praising like crazy the behavior you like and ignoring the stuff you don't like that is very popular on some parenting tv shows works very well the majority of time.

mother in israel said...

Liberated Parents, Liberated Children by Faber and Mazlish has a good explanation of the problems with praising. Unless it's very specific, it soon ceases to be meaningful. There was a study a while back, reported on in the NYT, showing that praise did not motivate children to work harder; it had the opposite effect.

Orthonomics said...

Nachson, You express what I was trying to get at far more articulately. Thank you.

Ora, I have to wonder what the Rambam would say about what he sees today regarding rewards/incentives. We've all met kids who negotiate everything as if they are a contractor in their own home, e.g., what will you give me if I take out the trash? I have friends who are concerned by a culture of rewards in a particular yeshiva school. I have no issue with giving small rewards, but (as Tamiri pointed out) not every behavior needs to be punished, nor rewarded, and parents/teachers don't need to be running their own beaurcracy just to make it through a day alone.

Tamiri-There most certainly is an Orthonomic element in this entire discussion. Overrewarding very much ties into the entitlement we have discussed over and over again here.

Abbi-I am a believer that esteem comes from the inside when an accomplishment is made (Look Mommy, I did the puzzle by myself! I braided this challah! I scored two goals at the soccer game! I remembered to smile during the recital!). Perhaps that would be another great parenting conversation since I get driven crazy when people praise my kids for every single thing they do, or jump up and down yelling "mitzvah boy/girl" just because they followed an instruction.

Not saying I'm against all verbal praise, but I'm skeptical about long term effectiveness.

Thanks for great comments, all. Keep the coming.

Anonymous said...

OTOH, with all the "bad" parenting these days (okay, since the permissive parenting started IIRC in the 60s), aren't most people coming out pretty decent after all? Could it be that just now, 2 generations after pop-culture parenting began, that we are seeing repercussion in the form of adults who just can't handle themselves if they are not constantly rewarded? Has it reached epidemic proportions? Same as "evolution" took time, the damages inflicted on people by pop-culture parenting just took time
to manifest itself?
Hey, anyone want to do a Phd?

Anonymous said...

"Years ago, a child's reward was his parent's pride and admiration. That was enough."

I'm not sure that "pride and admiration" were the main motivators back in the day. According to most of the elderly people I know (friends' grandparents, nursing home patients, etc), "my parents would have killed me if I'd tried that" was a pretty big motivating factor when it came to a lot of things.

I'm not talking about rewarding older kids with candies or other material items. Some examples of what I was thinking of: giving a kid time-outs when they hit--a two-year-old might decide not to hit just because he doesn't like being in time-out, but even though his motives aren't the purest he will avoid becoming accustomed to hitting, which is good. He can pick up the empathy and non-violent solutions to problems later. Example #2: If a child has to clean her room in order to take part in some kind of fun activity (ex. family movie night), she will eventually get used to living in a clean and orderly environment and to taking care of her own living space. Etc.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about the "get used to clean and orderly". When they were 8 and 10, respectively, my 2nd daughter was much neater than the her older sister. A decade later the younger one doesn't pick up after herself until long after I have tired of telling her to, and the elder is either satisfyingly or annoyingly neat, depending on your standards.

On the other hand at 10 and 8 the younger had her ears pierced (at her request) and the older wouldn't. The younger has since let the hole close, while the elder has not only gotten her ears pierced in multiple places, she has added a nose ring.

Children are highly non-linear.

Anonymous said...

"Some examples of what I was thinking of: giving a kid time-outs when they hit--a two-year-old might decide not to hit just because he doesn't like being in time-out"
I have had zero luck with time out with each of my kids who have needed it (3 out of 5) and I have noted that many experts advise against it. It does work in school, as I have seen but not at home. We taught son #5 not to bite without time out and without peer pressure and are working out his hands staying in their place without time out, as well. It's a time factor, maturity, more than a time-out issue, from what I have seen.
"Example #2: If a child has to clean her room in order to take part in some kind of fun activity (ex. family movie night), she will eventually get used to living in a clean and orderly environment and to taking care of her own living space. Etc."
This is a great example of how you phrase things. I have one son who is a disaster at keeping his room clean. There is no reward/punishment. It's a given: you can't go out until the room is clean. I won't pay him or buy him things and in order to be treated normally (go out on a Friday, his free day) he has to keep that room "normal", No amount of screaming or yelling or punishing or rewarding will change the fact that he is... messy. However, now at the age of 17 (yes, we have been working on this for years), he's keeping the room decent. Rome wasn't built in a day, there are no quick-fix solutions in child rearing in my opinion.
And don't get me wrong, our household is far from perfect. Far.

Commenter Abbi said...

I've read a bit of faber and mazlish- I hear what they're saying, I don't necessarily agree. If my little one finishes all her supper in a reasonable amount of time (which is a big challenge for her) then I'm certainly going to comment on it, because I want her to repeat this behavior.

Like everything else in life, I think it's an issue of moderation and degrees. When my older one gets dressed herself, I'm not going to just ignore it because someone in a book said that praise might backfire far into the future. I think one of the fundamentals that really builds a solid parent-child relationship is the child knowing the parents think he/she's terrific. It sounds simple and obvious, but to a lot of kids it' now.

I also praise for specific things- accomplishing a task that's been really hard, working really hard on a picture or project. And if my daughter brings me a picture, I tell her how much i love the colors she chose or how she arranged the shapes and lines. (That's the psychologically acceptable way of praising I learned in my early childhood ed classes).

As I said, I think there's balance in everything. To completely do away with praise and just expect kids to be little adults that automatically do things just for their own sake is expecting too much from kids.

Commenter Abbi said...

"He can pick up the empathy and non-violent solutions to problems later."

Ora, i use explanations concurrently with time outs. Meaning, we do the time out, then we explain in age appropriate language "That hurts, we don't hit" etc.

Anonymous said...

Abbi - I agree with you, children need to be praised for their accomplishments. My MIL never praised DH and he is still bitter about it. She also has a policy of complaining about her children in public and she is constantly (both home and privitely) compares them to someone else. For example her grandson finished college with finance. Now he has a great job with a major financial firm. But she always has to remind him (and other grandchildren) that so and so's grandson went to law school and after the Bar he will be a lowyer. Or her daughter is still paying off mortgage, but so and so already paid it off, and so on.

Regardless what one does MIL will always find ways to criticize. I once approached her about that matter, and she said that praise and pride creates spoiled children.

My DH and I disagree, we raise our girls with praise when appropriate. And we compare to other people so my children will know what not to do. My oldest is a fine, confident 20 y/o. Although my 16 y/o still has some self doubt issues. I hope she will outgrow them.

As for myself, I was always a neglected child. My parents were always busy working, cooking, cleaning and stuff like that. They finally "remembered" me when I was eight and a half, because my youngest brother was born and I became a natural baby sitter. Well, and without disposable diapers, I naturally got a job of "rinsing" wet baby clothes, too. So, it is not suprising that now I don't really have a relationship with my parents. Only, my oldest brother has. He was always a favorite, and he still is.

Orthonomics said...

Hurting children through comparing and complaining is a far cry from not over-complimenting them to the point the "good jobs" become meaningless either because it seems like a reflex or because it is age inappropriate or just not true (which can bite a kid in the back when they find out they really can't sing, dance, write, or add). MLevin, I'm sorry to hear your struggles.

Commenter Abbi said...

This might be a cultural thing, but I really don't see Israeli parents, or Anglo friends of mine here, excessively praising their kids to no end and in cases where it's completely meaningless. This might be a peculiarly American mc phenom.

More often then not, here I see children looking for their parent's attention while playing at the park or indoor play areas, while the parent is on the phone or reading. (And that's pretty rare too. Most parents I see are engaged in what their kids are doing, particularly during this after school/gan play time.)

I think it boils down to being tuned into tuning into what your child needs. Honest praise coupled with boundaries will probably yield you a well-adjusted, happy kid. Excessive praise coupled with no boundaries will probably yield you the opposite.