Monday, March 28, 2016

Scarcity and Incentives

When one of our children has earned enough glass "gems" to fill up her reward jar, she can choose a 'special thing.' There are limited choices: go see a movie in the theater, buy a book at the book store, go to the Butterfly Pavilion or get to have a meal at Noodles and Company. Over the four years we've been using this system, our three kids have all used the first three options.  However, no one has ever chosen the fourth.

Why not? We rarely go to movies, the kids rarely get to purchase anything new and we reserve the Butterfly Pavilion exclusively for these special trips. Going to Noodles and Co for a meal, however, is not a rare event.  Why would the kids waste a once-every-few-months 'special thing' on something they're likely to get every month anyway?

There is a larger truth, here, too. If you use incentives to affect your children's behavior, it is good to start from a base of scarcity. If they get candy every night after dinner, are they going to be motivated by an extra piece? If they get to go to a movie every month, will they be motivated by going again? If they get thirty minutes of screen time every day, is the promise of an 'extra' show going to make a difference? If Grandpa brings a toy whenever he comes to visit and Mom brings one whenever she returns from a business trip, is the promise of a new toy going to motivate the kid? If they get a dollar a day allowance, is a new toy going to offer any incentive over what they can purchase on their own?

Here are a few guidelines we've used concerning incentives:

  1. Choose something they want. Sometimes it can be naturally connected to the behavior but it doesn't have to be. You are introducing an external motivation and once you tell them it's connected, it is.
  2. Small, repeated incentives are more likely to be effective than one grand item. This seems to have two causes: A) repeating a behavior makes it a habit and B) the parent is more willing to withhold a small reward that the child has a chance to earn again. 
  3. Withholding the incentive when the behavior does not meet expectations is as much as part of it as rewarding when it does. If they can get the reward either way, why would they bother to behave?
  4. Scarcity breeds opportunity. It is worth the difficulty of restraining them from excessive sweets, toys, movies or whatever in order to use those (which you wish to use) as incentives when you've decided a behavior is truly unacceptable.
The gem jars are a successful system for us (kids now 4 and 8 years old). One of the best parts is that I'm willing to make them take a gem out whenever a rule, no matter how small, is broken. We give three gems a night (one for going to bed without a fuss, one for not waking us up during the night and another for staying in bed until they're supposed to get up) so, if a kid has a nightmare or a leg ache, they only lose one of three. Still getting two gems doesn't feel like a punishment yet the philosophy is reinforced: they only get the gems they earned. 

One other incentive we've used was a reward chart for our 4 year old when she was awake for hours each night. I printed out an excel spreadsheet with 4 rows x 7 columns; at the end of each row was a picture of a piece of the Halloween costume she wanted: Elsa wig, Elsa shoes, Elsa dress and Elsa make-up.  It was about 5 weeks until Halloween when we started, so we could afford to *not* give her some stickers at the beginning (see point 3!). She ended up earning all the rewards and, after a month of practice, gained the capability of turning on her light and reading if she woke in the middle of the night. Half-way through, her sisters decided it wasn't fair that she was going to get a purchased Halloween costume, since we usually make them, and asked for reward charts of their own. In this case, buying a few items was well worth the resulting behavior. But again, if the were accustomed to getting costumes that they asked for, the incentive wouldn't have worked so well.  Scarcity breed opportunity!


Kara C said...

Well said. A day it makes me wish we hadn't started our allowed hour of screen time. How quickly it becomes the expectation!I agree about rewards or punishments needing to be small parts. When a punishment is too harsh, I don't give it for the small problems...and they continue until I blow up. But if a consequence is small but will add up, it serves as a type of warning and I can give it for something as small as a rude attitude.

Marilyn Bundy said...

This Grandma has seen it in action, and it truly works! I'm so proud of you and Kara (and your husbands) for raising such well behaved children. I know it isn't easy!