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Obedience Prize

Do you ever feel like you have tried every reward chart on the planet? Ever feel as though your walls, bulletin boards, and mind are so cluttered with valiant attempts to bribe decent behaviors into your children and not so decent behaviors out? Never fear. I have a magic pill. Throw them out. Buckle down. And get ready to stand.

Children do not actually want, or need, reward charts. They are a hindrance. A distraction that creates static enough to drown out the real and lasting message. What children desire to know, with unshakable certainty, is that they are on their path. It feels good to have direction, stability, boundaries, and nurturing parents that don’t flinch at every fit, push back, and test of wills. Children like to feel good.

I have found that the thing my children desire most from me has nothing to do with external rewards that I can purchase for them, and everything to do with recognizing real growth and accomplishment. My praise and recognition go a long way in encouraging them to acknowledge and internalize their efforts, but only when it is real. 

Hypocrisy is no match for the x-ray vision of a child’s soul. They may smile and say thank you for that ‘way to go’ when nothing real happened. They may be giddy for the stickers on the chart, money in their bank, and medals and trophies to adorn their room. None of those things last. They must quickly be replaced by more, bigger, and better. Children want to be recognized for things that take effort and work, and they want to feel it, not stare at it. They have little use for praise and bribes to stroke their egos, but they will take whatever we offer and run with it. Which part of your child do you want to encourage and praise? Are you stroking the Soul, or the Ego. One is lasting, the other fleeting, and quite damaging to the first.

Money, gum, stickers, accumulating something for an outing, you name it, all of it pales in comparison to the joy they feel inside when they have set a goal, met the mark, and receive internal satisfaction, backed up by the ever enjoyed ‘way to go’. They know what they do. They know what they don’t do. Give them credit where credit is due and not where it isn’t. Praise the effort rather than rewarding the achievement. Praise the character rather than rewarding the award. Praise the work rather than rewarding the grade, trophy, or acknowledgement of man.

Have you ever heard, or uttered, silly words of congratulations, or offered a ridiculously disproportionate reward? Have you ever found yourself justifying the choice to bribe things out of your children or offer something for nothing? Have you looked around our society lately and been dumbfounded as to how in the world we came from: respect your elders, clean up after yourself, work hard, earn your own living, and so on, to: pants around the ankles, young girls and women dressed as pin up models, expectations of instant success and fame, and disrespect for anyone and anything that tells you what to do. I would venture to say that it has everything to do with external versus internal rewards. We have created quite a conundrum for ourselves, promising the world for little to nothing. The effects are far reaching, but we need only be concerned with our tiny speck of mankind. Horton heard the Who. Do you?

Many years ago, I found myself facing a difficult mothering situation with my then 3 year old. In my inexperience I sought advice from others, the advice was always a chart. I tried them all. We have struggled through the years to overcome my incorrect handling of the situation and are making progress, slowly but surely. The road could have been shorter, much less complicated, and less damaging to his soul, had I sought advice from the best source and stuck with it. I learned the hard way.

The funny thing is, I still learn the hard way, but I am getting faster at correcting the course and remembering that I can’t give it to them, but I can choose the best method to teach and train. There are so many methods out there. I choose to stick with the same method my Father in heaven has chosen for  me; set the expectation and allow time, with loving nurturing care at the ready. Slow and steady progress. Learning and growing step by step and bit by bit; line upon line and precept upon precept. I don’t get a chorus of angels singing my praises each time I hold my tongue rather than speak in anger or impatience, but I do get a much more peaceful life and the self-assurance that I am on my path. I want the same for my children.

I have heard tale upon tale of frustration and miserable results from wonderful mothers that are trying so hard. They are at the end of their rope, usually several reward charts and attempts in deep, and they come asking for advice. My approach is radical in this day and age. It can be difficult to wrap your head around it. I don’t use reward charts, or anything of the type. Instead, I post expectations. We have lessons about goals, we set goals, and then we follow up with tracking our progress. When a certain goal is reached there is a feeling of accomplishment that transcends the need for external rewards. The next goal is set and we are off to the races again.

The very thing that is supposed to ‘help’ is sucking the life and efforts (not to meniton oodles of time) out of the mothers that are trying desperately to simplify. We wonder daily what is going on and where the chaos keeps leaking in. Our frantic need to make everything just so, and keep up appearances, often removes us so far from the spirit that we can’t hear what is best in the moment. The charts and rewards have to keep getting bigger, better, more exciting, and enticing, just to garner half the result. The time and energy spent trying to coerce obedience might just be better spent returning to a place where the confidence comes from within, and the ability to require certain things and set expectations, is not a traumatic internal struggle and argument. We give ourselves excuses and justify until the point of silliness. We have been conditioned and choose to buy in to the belief that if we can not offer immediate and tangible rewards for basic acts of decency and character, then we have no right to ask it.

I heard an analogy once that great parents are like an old oak tree. That oak tree knows its business and it is not going anywhere without some pretty serious, and strategic, planning. You can run a truck into that big old confident mass and it aint gonna budge. I don’t know about you, but my children drive pretty big trucks some days. And yet, I venture to say that no child anywhere is quite so precocious, ingenious, or conniving, that we can be uprooted and moved entirely off our mothering course. Unless of course, we were never firmly planted in the first place.

This is serious, and seriously fun, business, this mothering stuff. Who are you? What do you really want for your children? What can you teach them that will lead them to their path of peaceful, healthy, and happy ways. What will lead them to live fulfilling and authentic lives, full of joy? How can you train these things best, so they become a part of your children?  Give yourself the time and opportunity to reset, and actively decide these things. Mothering on the fly is a dangerous practice and our children pay the price.

I do a thing. I don’t remember when I started this thing. It works wonders and my children love it. You do have to understand that my children have not been raised to expect external rewards for breathing. Whenever things are spiraling beyond any semblance of order and I need compliance for whatever reason (sometimes it’s simply my sanity), I call out, “Who is going to win the obedience prize?” Immediately, they run, scatter, begin, stop, or whatever is needed at the moment. They all want the Obedience Prize. I employed this practice one day while trying to ‘heard cats’ as a friend’s husband calls it, and get my children to leave a playdate and scurry to the van. There was whispering from the other children to their mother, “What is the prize Mom? What are they going to get?” The reply, “I don’t know. Let’s ask.” My reply, “A big smile and a hug from mom. But most of all the amazing feeling of knowing in their heart that they did it.”

Needless to say this brought looks of confusion and ‘is she crazy’ from the other children. Guess what my children were doing Blazing out the door and buckling in the van. Guess what I did? I took them all to Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone. Because sometimes, just sometimes, and always when it’s not expected, an external reward can help reinforce and nurture an internally sound and firmly planted principle.

My children have heard the rumblings of others that there should be a ‘real’ reward for them. They have never once asked. They like to feel good. Nothing can take that away from them. It stays with them forever waiting to be accessed on a difficult day to buoy them up and remind them how great life is and how good they feel about themselves. I can’t give them external rewards to remedy a lifetime of whatever is to come. I can’t buy them happiness. I can provide a lasting understanding that everything good comes from within.

Yay, for the Obedience Prize. Yay, for children that are capable of more than we often are willing to give them credit for, or are willing to allow them time to navigate. Yay, for oak tree mothers that understand first what is best, and never, ever, worry about how things might look to anyone else. Yay for motherhood!

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Marjorie Conder May 22, 2012, 9:02 am

    Very thought provoking. I too have been annoyed at any of us “being rewarded for breathing”. I have especially seen this happening in our local cub scout program. Looking back, now as a grandma, I can see that my most successful moments were not the charts, etc., but based on these principles, although I couldn’t have articulated them as well as you have here. But even way back when, I knew that “rewards for breathing” were just wrong.

  • Amy Lockhart May 22, 2012, 10:51 am

    Thanks Marjorie! As a young mother with 5 children ranging in age from 16 months to 11 years, this is something I am surrounded by every minute I am awake 🙂 It’s always good to hear from people that have been there and done that, that I am on a track that will provide solid ground for my young family.

    Thank you too simply for reading what I wrote. It was with excited trepidation that I jumped into this writing thing. I hoped at least one somebody might be intrigued enough to read it, and now I know somebody did. Thanks for being my somebody 🙂

  • Alison Moore Smith May 22, 2012, 10:53 am

    Amy, great insightful post. We are so glad to have you here!

    I’m a bit torn on the issue. The Alfie Kohn stuff has been out for well over a decade and is highly touted in many homeschooling circles. Still I see so many real-life examples that counter it, that I tend to try to use moderation and care when rewarding, rather than taking a firm position.

    Two examples off the top of my head:

    1. People work for the reward of money. It’s a really powerful inducement that most people seem to be on board with. And if the government weren’t so willing to step in and redistribute wealth (rewarding for doing nothing at all), even more would be on the job train.
    2. God gives us commandments and he offers eternal rewards. The scriptures are full of: do this, get this.

    And it’s not, I think, just “natural consequence.” There are lots of created consequences as well.
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  • Amy Lockhart May 22, 2012, 7:52 pm

    Thanks Alison, glad to be here! It’s such a great opportunity to be able to do something I love and have moments to connect.

    I am seeking those eternal rewards you mentioned, for sure. I find many worldly sources that have great information but always seem to be warring with one another. I have studied the Alfie Kohn stuff you mentioned and for me it is the extreme on one side, whereas I, like you, try to find the middle ground.

    My children don’t practice their piano because they get something tangible for it. They practice because they are excited about playing prelude for Primary, accompanying songs for the Primary Program, and visiting our local nursing homes to share their talents. They receive rewards in the form of heartfelt thank you cards in the mail from people that were uplifted by their music, and they are thrilled when people ask them to share the results of their hard work. Those are the kind of rewards I seek for my children because they are lasting. I have yet to hear any words of disappointment that the smile, hug, card, or whatever, isn’t big enough, sweet enough, or sufficient for their effort.

    I know people that pay their children with money and extravagant trips to practice and learn an instrument. They are constantly needing to up the ante in order to continue to get compliance. The chid may end up being able to play, but in all the cases I am aware of it never lasts beyond the point of the external reward. Of course, I don’t know everything! My concern is creating at such young ages the need for something in return. It seems that it only grows, and at quite rapids rates, eventually becoming something that hinders adult life in the form of addictive behaviors.

    At the same time, in our home, a temporal reward for getting their school work done (we homeschool) is screen time (tv, computer, etc.). They get 30 minutes for independent work, 30 minutes for all the rest, and 15 minutes if they are completely done before lunch! Of course screen time is not linked to anything eternal (although there is much time spent on church and spiritual sites, by choice) but my thinking is that they are going to get screen time, so if I link it into diligence and hard work, while making sure the reward is not extreme in comparison, then there are great strides made toward the eternal rewards I am seeking for them. They are thrilled when they realize how capable they are. Interestingly enough, they don’t always cash in on the reward either.

    Mind you, they will do their schoolwork regardless, but it sure is nice to have a motivator in my back pocket for those days that need it!

    In my experience, the eternal rewards, and those occasional, and carefully measured, temporal rewards, are exactly in line with being able to make internal changes (or awakenings) that bring us into better alignment with the Lord. Eternal rewards are based on our ability to internalize and apply the things the Lord is trying to teach us.

    I try to avoid firm positions on anything worldly, as there are always fallacies, even in the best sources. Instead, I seek the scriptures and study them with a prayer in my heart, while using the life of the Savior as a measure for how to raise my children. We live in a world that is programmed to desensitize by the second. I am fighting that battle as peacefully as I can by trying to stay as true as I know how, to those things that have been proven by Him to whom I am trying to return (and bring my family with me!).

    Moderation in all things, except the scriptures is what I say 🙂 Thanks for reading and your insight.
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  • Katie Grzegorczyk May 23, 2012, 6:48 am

    Wow Amy. So many excellent point in this article. I have been struggling with my children, as they are getting older and not so willing to do what they are suppose to do. I found myself yelling and getting angry. I didn’t like that, so I stopped. Yet, I have no solution and things just keep spiraling downward. I have been searching for an answer and I think I have found it. I love the internal rewards… and I never even thought of it. I have never been too keen of the the reward charts or receiving things for daily responsibilities. I am so excited to start this in my own family!

  • Amy Lockhart May 23, 2012, 11:16 am

    Thanks Katie 🙂 It’s definitely not the popular thing, but we have found that if you are willing to put in the effort and do the teaching and training that goes along with it, it really pays off in such miraculous and eternal ways.

    The trick was realizing that the teaching moments weren’t a hinderance to life, but that life was becoming a hinderance to the teaching and training moments. A little refocusing and getting our priorities back in line, helped us see that the point of life IS the teaching and training, everything else must come second. I could write an entire, and extremely long, post about that. I better stop now before this is as long as the last comment I wrote!

    Thanks for checking me out.

  • Alison Moore Smith May 23, 2012, 11:19 am

    I think my bottom line is that I really don’t see a substantive or qualitative difference between “natural rewards” and “created rewards” nor even between internal and external motivators.

    Natural consequences can be ineffective and/or too damaging (letting a child get hit by the car or fall off the cliff). They can also be almost exactly like “created” ones. If someone sends you a note or gives you a hug for playing the piano, why is that in a different realm from a gold star on a chart?). On the other hand, created ones can be carefully modified for the best result.

    External rewards can become internal rewards really quickly. When I was in high school, I had NO desire to mow lawns. But hold out ten bucks and I was all over it. (I actually did yard care as a business for about three years in high school.)

    Internal rewards are often very poor indicators of what is good and right. (Why are so many people so fat? Why are there so many babies born out of wedlock?)

    They practice because they are excited about playing prelude for Primary, accompanying songs for the Primary Program, and visiting our local nursing homes to share their talents

    The issue becomes when they are no longer motivated by such “acceptable” rewards (which ARE still rewards) for behaviors that are non-negotiable to you. Perhaps playing the piano isn’t a non-negotiable, but some things will be.

    Anyway, I think it’s good to look at different angles of this. Our culture has, I agree, probably gone way too far on the coddling and bribing. But I think the answer is very individual.

    Don’t misunderstand. If this “works” in your family, that is great. And it’s valuable information. I just think we need to be carefully about generalizing what works in a particular circumstance to all others, if you know what I mean.

    The hard fact is that there are lots of things that are good for us — individually and as a community — that some people simply are not motivated to engage in.

    If I read correctly, you don’t have teens yet. Is that right? It’s an odd thing with teens how they can morph into the complete opposite of themselves. That’s not always a bad thing at all, but it’s a life-changing event for families when it happens.

    Teens tend to be very motivated by autonomy. That’s good — and as one of my favorite Education Week speakers said, God given — but the results are not always good for the family as a whole. When this kind of conflicting value comes into play, it is very often a reward of some kind that can “balance the scales.” In other words, it can heighten the importance of a particular behavior/activity for the ONE, so that the entire group can be happier/safer/better.

    That might be something like “contribute to the family by doing chores and you can use the car” or “pick up after yourself and you can go out on Saturday.” In other words, even though the child might not remotely be motivated to clean by the lovely result of a sparkling bath fixture, they will probably be motivated by having the freedom that comes from having access to a car.

    I have seen parents of teens who take the philosophy “choose your battles” with teens. That generally means, the kids only do what they really want to do — and everyone else suffers. I prefer to use then philosophy “when values conflict, see if you can sweeten the pot.” 🙂

    And if that doesn’t work, I just say, “Here’s the cool thing. When you are ready to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, the accoutrements of adulthood come right along with it! Until then, I’m in charge.” 🙂
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  • Alison Moore Smith May 23, 2012, 11:27 am

    BTW, funny, we call it “screen time,” too. I use that phrase in a workshop last week and a couple of women grabbed onto it and said they wanted to steal it. (You KNOW I invented it, right? 😉 )
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  • Amy Lockhart May 23, 2012, 2:35 pm

    Of course you coined the phrase ‘screen time’, but I invented the internet. Please don’t tell Al Gore.
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  • Amy Lockhart May 23, 2012, 3:16 pm

    My intent was not so much to take a stand on an issue, but offer what is in my heart, and what works for me. I certainly don’t mean to offend or take a stance as though I have somehow figured it all out. If my experience is somehow beneficial to another, that’s great. If not, the hope is that there is a basic understanding; what works for one does not necessarily work for all.

    I apologize if it sounded as though I thought everyone needed to jump on my train because it was the only way. I was not meaning to recklessly spew forth dictates, rather, pose thoughtful insights for introspective meditation and pondering. The results of which are always individual.

    No harm meant, and hopefully no harm done. Being careful would take the ‘me’ out of writing. I write what is within me to write and I live what is within me to live. If another is drawn to it, so be it. If not, I still like you, and you can still use my internet. 🙂
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  • Angie Gardner May 25, 2012, 1:07 pm

    Hello Amy! Don’t know how I missed this for a few days but I am so glad to have you posting here. 🙂 I don’t know how you do it, but the amazing thing about all that you wrote is that it really does work for you haha! You have really great kids that don’t need to be rewarded for breathing in order to be happy and obedient. Looking forward to your next post.

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