Rewards are huge and they’re in play whether we employ them consciously or they just happen haphazardly. Rewards come into play starting from when children are very small. Though I don’t believe that we should punish newborns (because they won’t understand the categories), I think we can shape their behavior.
For example—and there will be some people who disagree with me on this, I’m sure—but when our children were very small, we would be getting the bottle ready and they would be crying as if their world was exploding. When we finally got the bottle ready, I didn’t stick it in their mouth when they were crying. I waited until they took a breath. I was trying to pair the reward with the cue take a breath.
That might seem like a little thing. But I think you can start very young pairing rewards with the behaviors that you want. What’s crucial for many parents to understand is that behaviors that are rewarded are behaviors that tend to get repeated. So, reward the behaviors you want and don’t reward the behaviors you don’t want.
Behaviors that are rewarded are behaviors that tend to get repeated.
Don’t Reward Disobedience
What I’ve seen from parents is that their child does something nasty and continues doing it. True story: a woman was standing at the door of our house talking with my wife Vickie, and her son whom I’ll call Neil climbed up on the back of the couch and she said, “Get your feet off the couch.”
As she continued talking with Vickie, she noticed that her son hadn’t gotten off the couch. “Get off the couch,” she repeated. He heard her and he just fidgeted, and so she said something like, “Sam and Vickie aren’t going to like you if you don’t get off the couch.”
I was thinking That’s so irrelevant. It might be true. Maybe we won’t like him, but he should get off the couch because his mother asked him to get off the couch.
He just continued to fiddle around on the back of the couch. And eventually she started digging through her purse and said, “I’ll give you this candy bar if you get off the couch.”
What did she just do? She paid him for staying on the couch until she pulled out a candy bar. I think our children do a lot of behaviors that we find exasperating because we reward them for doing it. They get paid for doing it. You don’t want to reward the behaviors that you don’t want repeated—so don’t reward them.
Let us be careful about singling out the strong-willed child as though his will is more corrupt than ours.
Young children cannot “lead” parents to a Jesus they do not know, but parents can lead a child to a Jesus the parents know and love.
You might feel overwhelmed by the amount of parenting advice that exists. Take a breath. Break the goal down into small steps, and take one step at a time.