Saturday, August 16, 2014

Reinforcements, bribes, punishments

Consider a situation where a child isn’t motivated to do his homework on time. He forgets to do his homework. He hates doing his homework. He does a sloppy job whenever he does. We feel embarrassed in all PTMs when the teachers say “He is bright, but doesn’t want to work hard. You need to do something about it”. Life stops for us there. We feel frustrated. We feel let down.
There are various ways in which we usually handle this:
Pressure: we keep telling the child to do his homework on time. We keep reminding. We sit with him, scold him, nudge him, coax him. He shows resistance, anger, frustration. We show double of everything. When the homework is done, he runs away to watch T.V. and we, mumbling and grumbling, proceed to do our own chores.
Punishment: we tell the child once to sit down for his homework. He delays. We threaten him. We tell him that he is lazy. We warm him that we will tell his teacher what a bad student he is. We curse our fate for getting a child with no aim in life. We prophesize doom. We slap him.
Bribe: we tell the child to do his homework and we promise a gift if he does so. He finishes quickly. We give him the gift. We feel great. Next day, hoping that he is on the golden path to a bright future, we ask him if the homework is done and he breaks all our hopes by saying no. We don’t understand where all the yesterday’s motivation went away.
Give up: we know it’s of no use. No amount of kisses, gifts, slaps is going to make him study. Perhaps he is born to be a failure. Perhaps gods are angry with us. We have heard about this ‘multiple intelligence’ and fervently hope that may be his verbal intelligence is poor and he plays so much because of his high kinesthetic intelligence. May be he will become an athlete. We leave it to destiny
These are the typical 4 ways in which we respond when the child ‘doesn’t listen’. We hate this daily fight, but feel that we don’t have a choice, right? WRONG. These 4 methods are plain wrong. They do nothing to motivate. They do everything to demotivate the child. So, we can’t use these and still wonder why the child is not feeling self-motivated.
You HAVE a choice. You have a choice of doing the right thing to motivate the child. First let’s see why these 4 methods don’t work.
Pressure: the child knows you are there to tell him what to do, when to do and how to do. So he gives him. He starts relying on you for the reminders. He begins to feel that he should do the homework for your good, not for his own good. Homework becomes ‘yours’. So why should he do your chores, right? Thus, more the pressure, lesser the self-motivation
Punishment: I don’t think you would like to hear this ever, “Lazy mom, you never do anything on your own”. I am sure you can’t cook if excess salt in the curry may get you locked in the bathroom. Period. We all need someone to say nice things to motivate us further. Danger signs look fine on sharp mountain curves, not on study table.
Bribe: if I get a gift each time I do my daily chores, I may do my daily chores only when I get a gift. Same happens with children. When they get a chocolate for finishing their homework, they get dependent on an external motivation each time there is a task. They begin to have an unconscious query, “Homework? Ok, what’s in for me if I do it?”
Give up: you give up and your child gives up too. It’s as simple as that.
So what are your choices then? The best way to handle this is by giving the reins in the hands of the child. Help him understand that he has a choice. He has a choice of doing or not doing his homework. Then help him learn that his choices have consequences. He should keep making the right choices to get a positive consequence. He will face a negative consequence if he keeps making wrong choices. Giving him negative consequence on the day he is doesn’t do his homework is punishment and giving him positive consequence on the day he does his homework is bribe.
It’s like eating food. You don’t feel healthy, if you have 1 healthy meal. You don’t get hospitalized if you have 1 high calorie low nutrition meal. You see the consequences if you keep eating healthy or unhealthy food. So, children should also learn to accept the consequences if they continue certain behavior. You have to reinforce the cause-effect relationship. You cannot force it on them. This idea is called reinforcement method. Reinforcement method can be executed in various styles. I find the charts very effective (they are constant visual reminders for everyone)
You may use a positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement chart for a particular behavior. You need to keep it very simple.
Simple steps to make a reinforcement chart for a particular behavior, for example, doing homework on time:
1. You sit down with the child and tell him that you have decided to stop nagging him for the homework (don’t give a long lecture here AT ALL)
2. You tell him that a chart paper is going to replace your role as regards his homework for a week (reminder to you, no lecture or sad stories about your constant struggles etc etc)
3. You make a time table on the chart paper in front of him with 5 columns and write Monday-Friday
4. You tell him that starting from Monday, you will give him a smiling face in the respective column if he finishes his homework in 1 reminder, and 1 sad face if he fails to do so.
5. You tell him that if he collects 4 smiling faces (let’s be practical here), you will take him to his favorite zoo on Saturday and you two will have a popcorn picnic in the balcony on Sunday
6. You also tell him that if he collects 4 sad faces, he cannot watch T.V for 1 whole week

How to fail here?
-By not stopping the nagging part (“I have already given you one reminder, sit down for your homework now or else I will give you a sad face. Do you want to go to that zoo with me or not? Don’t you like to spend some time with me? Don’t you love me?”)
-By not fulfilling the promise (“Oh you won! But you see we can’t go to that zoo this week. I am a little busy. Next week, if you collect 4 more, I will bring the zoo home”)
-By over-fulfilling the promise (“You have been such a good boy. Let me buy you a chocolate. Let me call up the entire world and tell them how nicely you have done your work”)
-By not following the negative consequence (“I am expecting few important calls today. Please don’t trouble me. Go watch T.V”)
-By over-doing the negative consequences (“I knew it. I knew that you wouldn’t be able to do it. It was a wrong idea to begin with. No T.V, no playtime for you for a month.”)
-By making the negative consequence sound like a punishment (“You can’t watch T.V to pass your time. At least have some brain to think of something else for your boredom. Don’t eat my head. Why should I not watch T.V? I haven’t collected 4 sad faces. You go in your room for the next 1 week and don’t ask me what to do”)
Use the reinforcement method to rectify any wrong habit and you will see magic. You will teach your child a very valuable lesson amidst all the magic, “You reap what you sow”. It will help him learn the right things to sow. It will make him self-driven.

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