Positive Consequences – Rewarding Cooperation
The essence of cooperation is that all people involved get some benefit from it. One problem is that the small world of young children often makes it hard to perceive the same benefits the parents notice. The benefits of staying clean, learning to get dressed, etc. are usually much too far away in space or time for a young child to notice. Whenever this is true, it’s useful to first ask ourselves these questions:
- Is this something that is a matter of my child’s health, safety, or well being? If so, this may be something where I want to take action.
- If I don’t take action, will the world provide a consequence to encourage a positive behavior from my child anyway?If I consider a task or behavior important, but my child doesn’t yet perceive this, I can link the task that isn’t attractive to the child, with an immediate benefit.
Example: Mark, 20 months, had a diaper definitely in need of change. It was hanging down low with unknown contents. None of this made any difference to Mark, who was quite happy to continue playing in this condition.
“Time to change your diaper, Mark.”
I quickly think of something Mark might love to do at this moment. “Do you want to run fast, Mark? Shall Mommy chase you?”
“Yes!” Mark is excited at the mention of one of his favorite games.
“OK. We need to change your diaper first; then Mommy will chase you!” I say excitedly. Mark willingly goes along to the bathroom for the diaper change, as he eagerly thinks about the fun we’ll have in a few moments.
You can utilize whatever your child likes to do to get him to willingly do other things that aren’t fun in and of themselves–things like picking up toys, getting clothes on, brushing teeth before bedtime, washing hands before and after meals, etc.
Many parents struggle with their children to get them to do these necessary parts of living. By connecting these activities to something your child perceives as a benefit, you can make this part of your job easier.
Beginning very young, and continuing into adulthood, children have certain favorite activities. At around 2 years of age, Mark likes to go outside, go “bye-bye” (anywhere will do), have someone chase him or swing him or read to him. If I make these activities available right after something Mark isn’t innately motivated to do, I get his cooperation rather than resistance.
Mark’s experience with linkage also taught him a way to interact well with his younger brother and others, later on. Mark learned by example one way to get others to want to do things, rather than force them. Several years later, I heard Mark occasionally use this method with his younger brothers.
Getting children dressed is a familiar parental “problem,” particularly with young children. Here’s an example of using this principle to get your child to cooperate in getting dressed.
“Let’s get dressed, Mark.”
“Do you want to go outside?” (or “Do you want to go to Katie’s house,” “Do you want to have breakfast?” etc?)
“All right. As soon as you’re dressed, you can go outside.”
Getting Kids to Clear the Table:
It’s dinnertime and Mark, 7, Loren, 5, and Darian, 2 1/2, are deeply involved in one of their games. The dinner table is still filled with their last project—balloon santa clauses, reindeer, and bears. I want them to pick up after themselves and get the table clear for dinner.
“Are you kids hungry for dinner?” I ask with a warm voice. At first I get no response—they don’t seem to have noticed my question. “Mark, Loren, Darian,” I say a little louder (but just as warmly), “Are you hungry?”
“Yes!” they exclaim, now that they’ve registered the question.
“Me too,” I agree. “We’re having Mexican hot dish for dinner!” I add, knowing it’s one of their favorites. “It’s time for dinner, and we can eat as soon as you boys have cleared off the table. See, each of you has a few things on the table to put away. And then we’ll get to eat dinner.” As they move to the table, I keep an eye on them in case they need some suggestions from me as to what and how to clean up.
Here’s another typical way we handle changing the child’s diaper when the child doesn’t want to. Rather than scheduling an immediate pleasure after the task, you can make it happen at the same time.
“Oh, your diaper needs changing.”
“No!” says the child, involved with some toy or activity.
“Do you want to take this along with you?” I ask, reaching to any small toy the child is playing with or might get interested in.
Now the child usually becomes absorbed in the toy, and willingly goes along to be changed.
Linkage to Positive Consequences: Step–By–Step Method
- You want your child to do something (X), but your child is not interested.
- Think of what your child would love to do (Y) either after doing (X) or while doing (X).
- Delivery: How to effectively let your child know what you’re offering:
- First build interest in (Y). “Do you want Y?” “Would you like to do (Y)?” An enthusiastic tone of voice mentioning something you know the child likes will usually work. If the child isn’t interested in (Y), you may want to think of something else, (Z), that is attractive enough. Wait until you get a positive response.
- After you have interest in (Y), make getting (Y) contingent on doing (X). “Great! As soon as you’re (we’re) done with X, you can Y.”
Utilizing the “Next Step” Desired by the Child
Mark, 20 months, is sitting in his highchair eating, when he begins to fuss. “Down.” he says.
“I need to clean your hands first.”
“Down, Down!” Mark cries more insistently.
“Do you want down, Mark?” I say enthusiastically?
“Yes,” he squeals, excitedly. Now he knows I understand him and I’m thinking about what he wants. His feeling state has shifted from complaining to agreement.
“OK. You can get down as soon as Mommy cleans your hands.” (I continue using a voice tone of excitement, and thinking of the good things to come.) I begin wiping. In this case, what he already wants to do next is benefit enough.
If I said the same thing using a stern voice tone, “You can get down as soon as Mommy cleans your hands,” he wouldn’t get the sense that I understand what he wants and that I agree with it. I would have created a struggle, and would probably have a complaining boy on my hands, possibly for some time.
Sometimes your child won’t get particularly excited by the consequences you can think of. Your suggestions aren’t enticing enough for her to want to do whatever you are requesting.* When kids don’t cooperate immediately, you can often find a natural consequence in the situation to get the child to cooperate soon. You can give them a choice between two alternatives, both of which are fine with you.
Example: “Do you want to get down, Mark?” No response.
“You can stay in your high chair if you want to, but if you want to get down, Mommy needs to wipe your hands first.” I’m careful to say all of this in a clear, even, cheerful tone of voice. My voice says it doesn’t matter to me which he chooses, it really is up to him.
Let’s say I simply move toward Mark with a damp cloth to wipe his hands. If Mark grabs his hands away, I usually don’t force him. Instead, I say, “OK, Mark. If you don’t let me clean your hands, you’ll have to stay in your chair.”
My job as a parent is much easier if I don’t force him. I can let him make the choice. It doesn’t really matter to me whether he stays in his chair for a while with dirty hands, or gets down now with clean hands. When I have leverage like this, I let him choose. I know that time passes much more slowly for him when there’s nothing very interesting to do.
A lot of parents make things matter that don’t really matter. They often resort to force when the situation itself will get the kid to make an appropriate choice eventually. That can be a waste of effort for parents, and force also builds resentment in the child.
Adding a Benefit:
Even when natural consequences would eventually work, it often speeds things up to set up a more enticing reward for the child to focus attention on.
Mark, 20 months, has been eating in his high chair, in his usual messy style. He is finished, and I’m ready to wipe his hands.
“Are you finished?” Mark nods. “OK, then it’s time to get your hands clean.”
“Would you like to get down and play with the kitty?” Mark loves the kitty.
“OK, we need to wash your hands first, and then you can get down and play with the kitty.”
* See also Children: the Challenge, by Rudolf Dreikurs, for extensive examples and discussion of the use of natural consequences.
Make Sure You Get the Benefit: Putting it into Practice
- Select your goal: Think of one thing you want your child to do.
“I want my child to get to bed earlier without dragging out bedtime.”
- Find a Positive Consequence. What does your child naturally enjoy doing? What comes next in your child’s day that your child likes? Pick a consequence that will work at the relevant time of day, in the relevant context.
“My child loves to have bedtime stories.”
- Connect Your Goal to the Consequence. How can you make what the child enjoys into a consequence of your child’s doing the behavior you want?
“If you are in bed in 10 minutes, you’ll get a bedtime story.”
- Practice Your Delivery. In your mind, practice delivering this message to your child. How exactly will you say it to make your message clear, and easy for your child to respond well?Get interest in the positive consequence before you talk about the behavior you want. Using a genuinely eager, excited, enticing tone of voice usually helps a lot.”It’s bedtime, boys. Do you want a story tonight before bed?… If you brush your teeth, comb your hair, go to the bathroom, and get your pajamas on, all in 10 minutes, we’ll still have time for you to get a bedtime story.”
Guidelines for Providing Benefits for Cooperation:
- Select a Size of Task and Immediacy of Benefit appropriate to the age of your child.With really young children who live in the present, make any consequence very immediate. By observing, you’ll know if your positive consequence is immediate enough.Example: Darian, 2, wants dessert. The other boys are finished with their dinner, and having dessert. Darian only ate two bites of dinner–not enough in our household to warrant dessert. “As soon as you finish your dinner you can have dessert,” I explain. Darian looks at his plate of dinner, and starts to whimper. I wonder if the task is too large for him to contemplate, or if the reward seems too distant. “If you eat one bite of dinner, you can have one bite of dessert.” I explain. Darian eats the bite and gets a bite of dessert. “Is that good?” I ask? “Yes,” responds Darian, “I want more.” “OK, if you eat this much more dinner, you can have more of your dessert,” I explain, scooting a portion of his dinner to one side of his plate. He’s now had one bite of dessert to motivate him to go for more, so I raise the requirements a bit. In two more batches Darian has completed his entire dinner, and gets the remaining portions of his dessert.In this example, I adapted the size and difficulty of the task to the child’s age. As Darian grows older, I’ll shift to him eating his entire dinner if he wants to have dessert.In our household, we usually do not have desserts at all. However, if we do, we make sure the children have eaten a balanced meal first. Without the presence of desserts, candy, or other non-nutritious “snacks”, research indicates that children will do a good job of selecting a balanced diet, and don’t need external encouragement to eat well. They’ll follow their body’s needs. However, if foods containing lots of sugar, honey, or other sweetener are available for the child to select, the child will ignore other more nutritious foods. I’ll always remember the mother I met one spring afternoon in the downtown Mall, who complained to me that her young daughter had a terrible appetite–the mother “couldn’t get her to eat anything.” As the mother told me this, the daughter sat nearby, contentedly eating a glazed donut. The mother seemed completely unaware that her daughter’s “appetite” was unlikely to improve if she had ready access to sugary treats.
- Tell Your Child of the Benefits, or Positive Consequences, in Advance.As much as possible, let your child know the benefits available in advance. In particular, emphasize the positive consequences: What can your child do to make things go the way he wants them to?
Some parents get into a cycle of telling a child afterwards what she “could have had” if she had just acted better. “Since you were mean today, I won’t take you to a movie.” “I don’t think you’ve been neat enough for me to do Y.” It’s good that the parent doesn’t want to reward uncooperative behavior. However, this puts the child in the impossible position of finding out about the consequences too late to do anything about it, with resulting frustration and resentment. When this information is given afterward, it is only punishment. The child needs information about the positive consequences in advance, to be motivated to adjust her behavior in the direction that you want.
Example: Mark, 6, and Loren, 4, are playing outside and having a great time. It’s getting late, and I call out to them that it’s bedtime.
“No, we want to play,” they say in unison.
“Can we stay up later?” Loren asks.
“Yes, just this one time, Mommy?” Mark adds.
“Well, if I let you play a little longer tonight, will you go to bed really quickly when I tell you it’s time? Usually they take their time in preparing for bed, so I allow for this by asking them to start the process earlier. I know that if they go quickly, they’ll end up in bed at the same time even if I let them play 10 or 15 minutes longer.
“Yes we will!” Mark and Loren respond.
“OK, if you’ll go quickly later, then you can play longer now.
“Later” arrives and I tell them it’s bedtime. “Remember, you agreed to go really quickly,” I remind them.
Naturally, this previous agreement isn’t very compelling to Mark and Loren at this point. They’ve already been able to play longer. They dawdle and continue kicking balls out on the lawn.
“If you go slowly, then next time you want to stay up, I won’t be able to let you.” I explain to them matter–of–factly. If you go quickly now, then next time you want to stay up, I’ll remember this and you might get to again. If I get no response, I’ll repeat the idea with more emphasis. “If you go slowly tonight, then you’ll never be able to have extra time to play again. If you go quickly, as you said you would, then you’ll get extra time to play another time. Because I’ll know you’ll do what you say.”
This was enough to get a response from the boys. “Let’s hurry,” Mark exclaimed. “Yes, because we want to stay up again.” agreed Loren.
“Oh, you are going really quickly. That’s great!” I immediately acknowledge their shift in behavior. “I’ll remember this next time.” I add as they continue bedtime preparations quickly.
- Start with Building an Interested State in Your Child: Sequence your presentation so that you first tell you child about the benefit. Build interest in the benefit. If the child isn’t interested, you can shift to another benefit that the child does like. (If this doesn’t work, you may need to shift to another method.) Only after you have generated interest in the benefit, do you let the child know what she needs to do to get the benefit.Example: Loren (4) has overheard us talk about going to the grocery story for the week’s food items.“I want to go to the store!” he exclaims, excited.“You want to go to the store? Good… Put your shoes on and then you can go to the store.”The linkage is very important. You begin by eliciting or matching their enthusiasm—pacing what they want. Then when they are in a positive state of feeling good about their outcome, you link what you want them to do with what they want. Now putting on shoes is a part of the excitement of going to the store.
- Use a Pleasant Voice Tone.A pleasant voice tone makes the difference between the child feeling punished and feeling rewarded. If you are thinking about the benefits to your child, and how much your child will enjoy them, you will automatically have an effective and pleasant tone of voice.
- Reversing the Order.You’ll build a better response from your children if occasionally you do what they want first. This is particularly true with young children.Example: Young Mark was accompanying me on a shopping trip. Like any young child, he quickly became interested in many little things that would take us off the planned course.All little kids do this. You can make the trip fun for both of you by doing a few things the child wants, and explicitly linking them to what you want to do next. “OK, we’ll go up this escalator, and then we’ll go get some shirts for Daddy.” After the child has something she wants, she will usually be more cooperative in going along with you, especially when you make the linkage clear.When the child is a little older, I’m more apt to do “business” first, and then do something special for the child: “After we’ve gone to the drug store, we can stop and get an Orange Julius.”
- Long–Range Benefits for Your Child:Effective child–rearing practices don’t just make things easier for you. There are long–range benefits for your child as well.Linkage to positive consequences helps build the ability to plan ahead—doing things for positive consequences. Many of life’s tasks aren’t fun or enjoyable in themselves, but doing them makes life better later. If children have small experiences of this when they’re young, it serves as a basis for doing it on a larger scale when they’re older. I’m now writing a book—a task that takes a lot of work and a long time. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have a way to notice and respond to the expected positive long—range consequences of my behavior.We are helping our children learn how their behavior results in predictable benefits.