The other day when I wasn't giving Molly exactly what she wanted exactly when she wanted it, she yelled at me "If I can't have a playdate with Claire right now, then I am never going to hug you again!"
Made me realize I am really in a bad habit of bribing and threatening the kids to get them to do what I want. "If you brush your teeth right now, then we'll have time for an extra story!" or "If you don't get in the car right now, then we aren't going to listen to High School Musical." Clearly these "If, Then" statements were coming so fast and furiously from me that now my 6-year-old was using them, too.
Coincidentally, I've also been reviewing the research on rewarding kids, and it is really making me rethink the series of postings I had on forming happiness habits; my method most definitely involved using rewards to goad kids into getting into good habits. Rewards work in the short-term, but research shows that they back-fire in the long run. So I'm revising and reposting the happiness habits articles.
The core premise of this blog is that happiness is a skill set that parents can teach to their kids. If we want to be happy, and if we want our children to be happy, we have to learn how to turn the skills presented in this blog, and the positive skills we already have, into automatic habits. But like most parents, I've also been teaching my kids habits that foster negative emotions rather than positive ones. For example, both of my kids have been in the annoying habit of waiting until the 10th time I'd asked them to do something before they did it. This was a frustration-fostering habit on my end, and because I often threw in a few random threats for added motivation, a fear-fostering habit on their end.
Most of us have some routines with our children that just aren't working but that we continue to replay day in and day out anyway. My friend R.'s nightly homework battle with her 8th grader leaves her depleted and frustrated and her son distant and grouchy. These bad habits make us unhappy. How do we break such frustration-fostering habits? How do we instill happiness habits in their place?
One big key to happiness is making the everyday unfun things in life into automatic routines, so that we don't have to fight the urge not to do them day in and day out.
For that, parents and teachers often use rewards. Good, juicy, rewarding rewards.
When we engage in certain activities (such as eating and, for adults, having sex and taking certain drugs), dopamine is released, creating feelings of enjoyment and an accompanied desire to repeat the activity. Researchers believe that when we reward kids, we stimulate the release of this feel-good brain chemical, and when a reward is consistently associated with a behavior, this dopamine-release helps make the behavior an into a habit. Animals, insects, kids, grown-ups: we all learn to repeat
behaviors that lead to really good rewards.
The great thing about dopamine is that it is all about the motivation and not so much about the activity. So my kids don't actually have to enjoy emptying the dishwasher, they just need to feel rewarded for doing it.
But all this neuroscience aside, rewarding children is controversial in the scientific community. Most researchers agree that it isn't a great way to motivate behavior over the long run. The same goes for my habit of punishing kids and threatening them with "consequences". (As in: "Do that again and there will be no computer games for a week.")
But you have no idea how many parents wrote to me thanking me for giving them permission to use rewards; in theory no-rewards no-punishment parenting sounds good (if you've read anything by Alphie Kohn), but it doesn't come naturally to most of us.
I think I've found a better way: one that works in the short-term and doesn't backfire in the long run. The next several postings will be about how to help kids successfully break bad habits and replace them with good ones without using material rewards. Stay tuned!
© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
Become a fan of Raising Happiness on Facebook.
Follow Christine Carter on Twitter
Subscribe to the Happiness Matters Podcast on iTunes.