I am a reluctant capitalist. In the movie, Wall Street, Gordon Gekko says, ” The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good.” Back when I first saw the movie, that line made me cheer. Now that I’m a little wiser, it gives me the chills.
Now I’m a parent. And part of the deal with being a parent is that you’ve got this, uh, responsibility to teach your kids stuff. Actually, that’s not quite right. Kids learn stuff in spite of what their parents do or say, so the parental responsibility is to actually think about what they’re teaching their kids. As always, actions speak louder than words.
All that is just a lead-in to my unease with how well the reward system works in our house. We’ve got a preschooler who loves doing well and, like most of us, enjoys being rewarded for good work. So we bought a box of 100 standard poker chips and we dole them out relatively liberally. Picked up your toys without being asked? “Nice work! Go ahead and toss a couple of chips in your chip jar.” When the “chip jar” accumulates 25 chips, it merits a trip to the local dollar store for one item of his choice. Which usually amounts to a new dinosaur or something.
The rewards diminish with the frequency of action. If he picks up his toys without being asked, then the first few times he’ll get mucho chips. But as the toy pickup habit becomes ingrained, the rewards slide. My theory is that this will cause him to innovate new rewardable actions, while still keeping the newly established habits.
I have some concern with the system. For instance, I don’t want him to think that he is owed a reward for every good thing he does. (or every “good thing” he invents: “Hey dad, I decided not to hit my brother. How many chips can I get?”) Most good deeds are their own reward. I’m hoping this gets through with the diminishing reward trick. Also, we’re pretty arbitrary when doling out chips. Picking up a whole mess of toys might score only one or two chips, but wiping a couple of pee-drips (oh yes, I did just say “pee-drips.”) off the toilet seat will score a windfall. Generally nothing merits more than five chips. Although, the other day I totally negotiated with him on something and he squeezed 12 chips out of me! [Full story: we were at an outdoor party and a friend started chasing our son. Started out fine, but then the son tripped and got hurt and immediately the fun guy who was chasing him was transformed into a demon. I really wanted our son to go over and talk to the guy (who was feeling awful about the whole thing) and let him know everything was cool. I told him I’d give him a couple of chips for it, but he wanted 20. I went down to five and he went to 12 and wouldn’t budge. So 12 it was. He talked to the guy, gave him a high five and everything was cool.]
So you probably see my dilemma. The reward system works really well, but I don’t want to turn my kid someone who expects rewards for everything he does. I also don’t want him to start getting all greedy with it (though this hasn’t shown up yet). The only thing that really gives me much comfort is that I’m convinced that we’re not passive parents. We’re constantly evaluating how our kids are doing, what we’re doing, whether what we’re doing is good, whether it’s both good and effective, etc. And we’re always talking to the kids. Letting them know how much we love them and what our expectations are.
So there it is. Our little micro-economy for micro-people. Use at your own risk.