When twelve-year-old Billy showed up in math class without his homework for the third day in a row, his teacher sent him to the vice principal’s office.
The vice principal called Billy’s mom and dad. Mom and dad left work, drove across town, and squeezed into the administrator’s cubbyhole office. The three adults crowded over Billy, confused and scolding and angry. Together, they made it clear that he was grounded in both homes and would be supervised while doing his homework every night.
All was well for a couple of days, and then Billy once again came to class unprepared. He had done his homework under dad’s strict oversight the night before, but he refused to turn it in. Tutors were hired, testing was ordered, and Billy was enrolled in psychotherapy where someone finally took the time to listen. As it turned out, Billy completely understood the limit: if he didn’t do his homework and deliver it to the teacher on time, then he would have no electronics in either home.
Billy told his therapist that he cared very much about Facebook and Twitter and Xbox and TV, that he felt like he was invisible if he didn’t have his cell phone, but he fairly glowed with excitement about the reward he knew he’d get for not doing his homework.
REWARD SUCCESSES RATHER THAN WAIT TO PUNISH FAILURES
Of course you recognize that this is a squeaky wheel situation. The only identified outcome is negative and associated with failure. The vice principal would probably have been better off to create a positive contingency. For example: when you’ve turned in five homework assignments on time, you’ll get fifteen minutes to shoot hoops in the gym at lunch. In this case, it’s important that the contingency not require five successes in a row—you want to avoid a situation in which the child succeeds four times but earns nothing when he fails on day five.
“Yes,” he said, “my parents got together and they agreed on something! It was pretty cool.”
This reaction highlights not only how strongly we crave the feeling of being held tight by our caregivers—for Billy this meant his divorced parents’ cooperation to meet his needs—but also the importance of the subjective impact of a contingency.
Indeed, the meaning of a presumed reward or punishment is in the eye of the beholder. Until you know what a child values, the limits and contingencies you provide will be shots in the dark. Of course, some guesses are better than others. Preschoolers enjoy shiny trinkets featuring favorite media characters. School-age kids can become obsessed with sports heroes and celebrities. Teenagers often value access to devices that connect them with one another. Money matters to some, but not to others.
Sending a child to his room may be intended as a punishment when, in fact, the child relishes the opportunity to spend time away from the family drama surrounded by preferred objects. An early bedtime can be a powerful threat to many children, but an equally powerful reward to others.
The best way to avoid these inadvertent outcomes is to involve your child in creating the structures that hold her. The limits may be non-negotiable, but the rewards and punishments can be open to discussion.
Try this: Brainstorm together to create a list of everything (tangible opportunities and privileges alike) that your child wants. No holds barred. Write each item on a separate note card. When you’re done, discard the impossible and impractical things. To ride the space shuttle. To own a car. A trip to France. Then ask her to put the remaining cards in order from most desired to least. Would she rather earn a pizza party with a friend or download a new song by her favorite artist? Would she rather download a new song or be excused from taking out the trash for a week? Now assign expectations to rewards, making her most desired rewards hardest to earn.
The limit is: make your bed before school without a reminder. Every success earns a poker chip. A trip to the mall costs three poker chips. A trip to the beach costs twenty poker chips. A trip to Disney costs three thousand. A plan of this sort not only assures that she values the rewards that you offer; it also teaches your child to tolerate frustration, delay gratification, and makes success on any scale a matter of shared pride. She will tell you whether she’s ready to be let go for three days or three hundred days before she needs you to hold her tight.
Excerpt from Holding Tight, Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times. By Benjamin D. Garber, Ph.D. Unhooked Books, High Conflict Institute Press.