A Parental Experiment.

Our five year old is going through the typical little boy phase of listening to what we tell him to do every time, immediately.

….No. Wait. The other thing.

He’ll either wait until we tell him something three or four times, or do something at his own pace, when he’s damn good and ready.

It’s been driving his mother and I insane. If we ask him to interrupt what he’s doing and complete some other task, it is a crap shoot. Will he whine? Or outright tantrum?

I know that every kid goes through something similar, and anyone who tells me that their children were always amazingly obedient and terrific listeners is a liar, plain and simple.

We decided we needed to do something about his chronic ‘not listening’ – it was so bad that for a while we were worried that he had hearing problems. His last physical exam squelched that fear, and told us once and for all that his ignoring us was a conscious decision.

We were exasperated. The simplest requests from him would illicit wails of anguish and pouting.
Then…in a rare moment….daddy came up with an idea.



Sort of bribery.

You see, our son is an avid lover of all things ‘vehicular.’ Trains, cars, trucks, planes…..all of it.
Recently, we say an ad on TV for the upcoming movie “Planes 2 – Fire and Rescue” This promised to be a mega hit with him, since he adored the first movie. He immediately got excited about its release.

Daddy’s rusty brain-wheels began to turn. “How can we work this into our plan to teach him to listen to us?”
Finally, it hit me like an oncoming locomotive. He would buy his own movie ticket with money that he earned by listening to us!

Now, before you say “That is exactly what bribery is!” – there are subtle differences between my plan and paying the little tyke for being good.

We went to the store and bought a wad of play money. Lots and lots of bills with denominations ranging from $1 to $100,000. The deal is as follows:

  • Every time we ask him to do something and he does it without protest, argument, or making us ask him again, he earns $1.
  • Eating dinner properly and a few other major trouble spots are worth $5.
  • He CANNOT have any of the dollars he has already earned taken away. (No negative reinforcement)
  • At the end of the day, he has to count out how much he has earned. (Math lesson)
  • We log his haul on a calendar every day between now and movie day.
  • On movie day we add it all up and see “If he has enough” to buy his movie ticket.

– He’ll have enough. We’re not setting a goal for him to make, its sort of a “Make as much as you can” sort of deal.

The initiation of the rewards program was exactly like I thought it would be. The first time he fought us on something, we calmly reminded him that he ‘could have earned a dollar right there.’ – Which produced a look of horror on his face when he realized that this was in fact- not going to be easy. After that, he settled into the idea, and is quick to remind us when he does something we ask him to do, making sure we give him his dollar.

There are a few kinks to work out.

  • He’ll volunteer to do something for me, then ask for a dollar. I don’t know if I should make the program more complicated and add that feature to it, or sweeten the deal and let him earn. I’m worried that he’ll begin to expect rewards for EVERYTHING he does, so I’m thinking that “Being nice” won’t earn him anything.
  • His constant reminding us that he’s listened and earned his dollar.

Admittedly this isn’t perfect, but we’ve been at it for almost 2 days now, and the amount of wailing and crying over things has been already drastically reduced.

But are we leaning too heavily on a rewards program? I mean, he isn’t a dog to get treats whenever he does a trick, but at the same time, if we are breaking him of his combative habits before he goes off to school, can it really hurt? I do wonder if we aren’t inadvertently teaching him that rewards come with every little positive thing he does, but again, I am enjoying the willingness he has to comply with things like “go brush your teeth” and “please clean up your toys” without tortured cries of anguish.

This is where being a parent gets sticky. There are so many schools of thought on ethical education, discipline, and education, that no matter what path you choose to walk, you’re going to find someone that has a problem with it.
My original plan was to start with 10 stars on a board. For everything we have to ask him more than once to do, or fight we have, we lost a star. But my wife pointed out the theory that “Nobody takes money out of your paycheck so why treat kids that way?”

So trying to find something that works while at the same time bending to conventional child-rearing wisdom wasn’t easy, and I don’t know if it is possible at all to be honest.

But, no matter. We’ll give this a shot for a while and see if it works. I think the bugs in the system will fix themselves after time, and if I keep it simple, he may not become dependent on rewards for simply not being a pain in the butt. I don’t need this to backfire and have him start blackmailing me into dolling out play money to prevent him from giving me more gray hairs.



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