Is it better to reward good behavior or just expect it?

February 03, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

In October, my two children were named "Proud Pumpkins," and an orange, laminated, cutout pumpkin was draped around their necks -- and the necks of hundreds of other kids at their elementary school -- at an assembly to honor good behavior.

In December, all the children were named "Shining Stars" and a yellow star was draped around their necks. Their pictures were glued to the center of the star, and at each of the five points, one of his or her good qualities was written.

For Christmas, my children wrote their good deeds (although I don't think "doing my homework" qualified) on links in a paper chain and had the chains blessed by our priest at a children's Mass.

The children got certificates in their report card envelopes for good attendance (nothing in there for me, who gets them up every morning). And there were certificates of accomplishment after gymnastics camp and recitals after tap and ballet.

Each child has played on soccer and T-ball or baseball teams, and there has been a trophy for each player after each season, including seasons noteworthy only for their losing streaks. We now have more hardware in our house than Joe Montana.

My children seem to get a reward or an award for every step they take without falling, and it is starting to make me feel uncomfortable.

Jessie, the second-grader, gets "no homework" coupons, bright pencils or a piece of candy for behaving during her school day. She gets a "Jessie had a great week" note home every Friday that I am supposed to sign and send back.

Joseph, the fourth-grader, is promised in-class movies or pizza parties or ice cream parties if he and his classmates can get through a string of P.E. classes or music classes or art classes without misbehaving.

All of this bothers me because my children are being rewarded for behaving in exactly the way I expect them to behave. They had better be Proud Pumpkins and Shining Stars or their mother is going to know the reason why.

As Jessie said when she came home, remarkably unimpressed with her Shining Star, "I haven't had my name on the board for being bad even one time in two years."

I am no Drill Sergeant Mother From Hell, and I can be incredibly inconsistent, but my children know that there are certain standards of behavior in our family. As Joe said when we entered a fancy restaurant for dinner one night, "Well, Jessie, looks like we're going to have to use all our manners here."

I know the importance of positive re-enforcement, and I practice it like a religion. My son got a bear hug and a wet smooch on the cheek the other day after he was a kind and patient host to a much younger friend who didn't exactly play what Joe wanted to play.

And I know what the schools are trying to do: hold the good citizens up for praise so their behavior will be emulated by children whose disjointed home life does not reward good behaviors.

And I know that teachers are searching for any strategy to control their classrooms and instill in their young charges a love of learning and a love of self. Their success can only mean good things for my kids, who sometimes have to try pretty hard to ignore the disruptions around them. How could I deny teachers a strategy as benign as a good citizenship assembly or a pizza party?

And I know what the sports coaches are doing, too: Make these games, which will be brutally competitive and exclusive all too soon, fun and egalitarian.

But the flip side of this is that my children will come to expect rewards for the manners, good work habits and good sportsmanship that I expect, for not doing things it might never occur to them to do. The desire to behave decently and learn has to come from somewhere inside, and all these trophies and assemblies are not going to put it there.

Raising kids is a constant process of civilizing them, and it is exhausting and a great pain for parents and teachers. There are long dry spells when I feel like I am raising two rude little beasts who will never learn to complete a task or eat dinner with all four chair legs on the kitchen floor at the same time. And I am sorry to say there isn't a trophy or a G.I. Joe figure or a round of applause waiting at the end of every good day.

I suppose all this praise and all this hardware reflects nicely on the job I am doing as a parent, but I have to say that it is not necessary. Like my children, I am doing what is expected of me.

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