Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sticks and Carrots

Sticks and carrots - also known as punishments and incentives - are standard issue in your parenting toolbox.  Like really good tools, sticks and carrots do far more than one simple task.  

Sticks:  A stick, used well, prods gently to help guide small directional changes. The best stick creates or points out the consequence of the child's action.  The consequence needs to be related to the change, comprehensible to the child and enforceable by you.  Early in my parenting years I was determined to use only carrots and never sticks but, after a weeks-long battle about staying at the tables, I turned to my 2-year-old and said, firmly, "If you leave the table again I will give your food to the dog and you will have to wait for supper to eat again." When she left the table, I scraped her plate into the dog dish and then watched her thunderstruck expression as she comprehended what had just happened.  I felt like the worst mother in the world.  But guess what!  I never had to do it again.  She had learned that I meant what I said.  She maybe didn't understand why I thought she needed to stay at the table until she'd finished eating, but she knew what would happen if she didn't.  And she didn't like it. She changed direction.

You have to mean it! We've all seen the parents who use the stick to no avail:  "If you don't come right now I'm just going to leave you here!"  I've never actually seen a parent leave their child and drive away, have you?  Only use sticks you are prepared to actually poke with!  

Carrots: Carrots are definitely multi-functional.  You can use them as if-then incentives: "If you clean your room first, then you may go to the movies with your friends." (The benefit here is obvious.) You can also use them to reward desired behaviors: "Wow - thanks for bringing in the trash cans!  Why don't you call Lisa and see if she wants to go to the movies tonight? I'll drive!" Even the most recalcitrant child will internalize the idea that good behavior reaps good rewards. Catching kids being good rewards you too - you spend your time being delighted by your child.  Contrast that with time spent trying to catch them doing something wrong!

Still, beware the carrot's dark side.  A smart child can turn the tables on you and begin to use incentives that cause you to reward them. Obviously, this is more like hitting your thumb with the hammer!

Our great parent God is beyond carrots and sticks and other tools. God simply delights in us.  We have been given the clearest and most difficult instruction for life and then turned loose: love God and love neighbor. Regardless of how well or badly I carry out those instructions, God continues to shower me with love; giving me tools and wisdom when I ask, and unconditional love all the time.  I'm starting to think this is what parenting adult children may look like, but I'm just getting started down that branch of the parenting river so I'll have to wait a while to give "expert" opinion there.  Good luck with your sticks and carrots this week!

1 comment:

Janis said...

So true, Julie! And I must say that I am a firm believer in the M&M Method of Potty Training!