BUSY IN BRISTOW: Show Me the Money, Mom!

Yesterday, I asked Youngest Son to organize the container cabinet. After matching up the lids to their bowls, he asked me if I could pay him for doing the job. I’m not sure if my logic was flawed on this one or not, but I told him no, because although we’ve recently begun to pay our children for chore completion, he’d gotten assigned the job because he was underfoot, sighing loudly while I was making lunch. If you’re bored, I tell them, and you can’t find anything to do, I’ll find something for you.

I’m a fan of many Old School Parenting techniques, and this is one of them, but sometimes I wonder well the Old School tactics merge with those tips I take from modern day parenting experts.  

Paying our kids to do chores began as a result of Oldest Son’s ADHD diagnosis; because his brain works differently, I’ve had to be open to doing things differently. With ADHD, research shows that a concrete reward can be the defining difference between desired behavior and chaos. And once Oldest Son started earning a wage from us, the other kids began asking. Now I’m in a real pickle. What should my kids do because it’s a paid chore, and what should they do simply because I told them to?

I don’t have any childhood experience with this at all because when I was a kid, I wasn’t asked to do anything around the house. When I did pitch in, I was told, “No! It goes like this!” which, let me tell you, wasn’t very motivating. Now that I’m the one in charge, I hear the same voice of criticism rising up and sometimes it escapes before I can catch it, but more often, I remember how it felt to be criticized and keep quiet or phrase my feedback as a suggestion.

It’s harder for me when every little thing my kids do makes them come looking for a reward. How do I inspire in them intrinsic motivation to do a job and do it well for the sake of the job itself?

According to the experts, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s all about the set up. If you offer the cash/treat in the midst of the activity with a pleading voice and a particular look of pain on your face, that’s bribery. If you tell your child that you’ll reward him before beginning and make it clear what he can earn, that’s a legitimate reward system. That much I get.

But what about “catching them in the act and rewarding them when they’re done?” We like to do that, and so far, it’s pleased them since they get a treat they weren’t expecting. It also makes us feel good because we get to feel generous, but I’m afraid it’s training them to do things – not because they want to pitch in – but because they’re betting they can “get” something out of it. Here’s an example.

Last week, Oldest Daughter swept the grass off the sidewalk in front of the house as her father was finishing up mowing. She beamed when he said, “She decided to do this all by herself.” After dinner that night, the two of them went to 7-11 to get her a slurpee. Flash forward to Friday. Oldest Daughter is by my side in the kitchen, sweeping. She looks at me beatifically and says, “I just thought I’d help. Can I get a treat later?”

What do I say? My first impulse – with which I went – was to remind her that sometimes we help out just to help and that I am far more inclined to reward when it’s my idea. As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized that I was “wink-wink” teaching her how to manipulate me which doesn’t really make sense either.

I like the idea I heard from a friend whose children are now grown. She said she made a list of chores that needed to be done regularly. To each chore, she attached a payment price. Any of the children were free to do any of the chores in any order they wished, and whoever did the chores earned the cash. This makes sense to me, although I wondered if the kids argued amongst themselves about who was going to do what or tried to “one-up” each other.

At the end of the day, I’m also conflicted regarding my ulterior motives. Am I trying to get help around the house? Am I trying to teach them a good work ethic? Make my life easier? Teach them to help each other and be selfless? Raising good little capitalists who make the connection between work done well and a paycheck? If it’s that last one, at what point do I point out the places in their job that they didn’t “make muster” thereby getting the outcome I want (and am now paying for) versus a slipshod result? Is it slipshod if it’s not the way I want it but “it’ll do”? The way I do it isn’t necessarily the best way or the only way, but it is the way I want the job done, right? Won’t that teach them what it’s like working for a boss?

I think what I’d really like is the hardest thing of all to teach, and that’s why I’m still finding my way: I’d like to raise self-motivated children who pitch in when they see someone else needs help and who want to work together as a team because they’ve got good hearts. I’d like them to do a job for the sake of how it feels on the inside when you know you’ve done a good deed and done it well.

Ironically, well before the ADHD experts advised us to tie a concrete reward to the behavior we wanted from him, Oldest Son was the most altruistic of the bunch. He’d help our neighbors stack wood and shovel their driveways. When I got home from the store, he always unloaded the groceries from the car before I could ask. I just hope I can figure out what we’re doing right before we do too many things wrong.

© 2014, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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