Archive for Behavior Topics
Incentives Do Work…But Not The Way We Think They Do.
It is a well-researched fact that incentives DO WORK! This is true for adults and for children. However, with years of great studies behind us, we now understand more precisely how and when to use incentives. From Kindergarten to mature adults, the following general principles seem to hold true.
• Keep It Simple (For Incentives To Be Effective)
When studying simple tasks, like showing up to school or reading a book, incentives have proven successful. When motivating children or adults, adding a ‘bribe’ is useful for simple, task that are understood and easily managed.
Avoid trying to use incentives in any fashion with complex, creative tasks, or those requiring a significant amount of brain power. This includes any set of tasks that are challenging for your child’s abilities.
Why? Because performance decreases with complex tasks! When we add an incentive to anything that is demanding, creative or taxing of the intellect, we see performance decreases. This has been tested with toddlers, and with adults. It is critical that the tasks are easily mastered.
• Thus, Make Sure Kids Can Easily Do The Task You Incentivize
The key here is that the more effortlessly your child can perform the task, the more likely an incentive system could work. The issue here (addressed by the incentive) is one of simple, pure motivation.
We see very effective incentive models that actually get children to read books, for example. Assuming reading has been mastered, and the material given is not too challenging, incentives cause children to read more books, at least in the short term.
However, these same systems do poorly at improving reading comprehension or grades. Such complex events do not respond well to incentives. The complexity is the issue, because if too complex, children do not feel as if they can control the outcome.
• Children Must Know That Their Efforts Are Directly Related To Receiving Incentives
This is where clarity begins to emerge in understanding incentives. When the task is simple, and the rules are clear, children are able to increase their performance. “Read a book and earn a buck.” This is straight forward, and children do respond. They read more books in this model, with the one dollar incentive.
Similar results can be found with basic chores: “Clean your room. You earn 5 dollars.” Children do respond to this.
If told they will earn new sneaks for every ‘A’ they may feel there are too many factors that have nothing to do with effort. In fact, they can control their study time, but they can’t control the grade. Thus, this is where problems begin to emerge, and incentives do not work well here.
In the adult world, we see where this understanding could be applied for better results. A number of my clients work on commission. For some, the sales process is simple and incentives are straightforward, thus the incentives work.
For others, they work in a system with a very long sales process that is complex and requires creativity. In such systems, incentives are actually (likely) making performance decline. The pressure of the incentive detracts from creativity and promotes more fear based thinking. In such systems, we know that more options for creativity and autonomy would serve the business. Yet, these approaches are seldom adapted.
• Incentives Also Eventually Fail Unless Motivation Becomes Intrinsic
This is why I am not a fan of these extrinsic motivators and bribes. They do work temporarily, with simple, easily mastered tasks. But without a clear plan, external incentives are NOT an effective long term model to build responsible children.
First, most of the responsible behaviors we seek are easily handled with a solid parenting game plan. This is not just hype…but it’s reality. Most families are waiting too late to initiate a plan for building responsibility, and then when they do…they choose too much based in soft ‘pop psychology’ that has little proven track record. Programs like my Essential Parenting home study course, is just one example of how to get these tools without resorting to bribing children for a few chores.
There are other more serious considerations as well. If using incentives, the incentive must get larger, and keep changing, especially for the more challenging child or teen. Within a short while, even the biggest incentives fail unless the motivation is shifted to one internal to the child…and not built on external bribes and incentives.
I have an associate, who has two challenging boys. He lives near Disney, and has a season pass. They are at Disney at least 3-4 times a month, and he used this as an incentive model for months. However, after you child has been to Disney a couple dozen times, you find that Disney is not enough to get them to clear their room.
See the problem? I am sure you do.
Have I used incentives in my parent coaching with families, to help with difficult kids? Yes, of course. However, this in built into a system that is designed to teach responsibility and nurture a child’s internal motivation. In addition, it is used with a very clear plan to eliminate the external incentives as soon as the ‘habit’ of responsibility begins to emerge.
Bottom Line: You can use incentives to get cooperation on simple tasks. It is not a substitute for a poor game plan that is failing with a child or teen.
Instead, seek out Parent Coaching if you have serious concerns, so that you can get the long term results. Or perhaps, consider a proven training program, like my Essential Parenting Home Study Program. If on the right track, you should find that most of the behavioral challenges are gone within a few weeks, and then you are on the path to building consistent responsibility without bribes and constant conflict.
Have you notice this fundamental truth? Some people are able to find a reason to complain regardless of how good things are in life. We often can spot such ‘victim’ mentality, and recognize the power of these victim beliefs to generate a lack-luster life.
On the other hand, there are folks who maintain a positive outlook, and find value in almost every experience. They see each moment of life as a valued experience, and it seems that everything serves them.
You can see this in your children. If they have a certain tendency to view the world in a particular way, they will interpret almost every event through those lenses. Some children see almost everything in ways that ultimately support a positive view of themselves and others. For other children, the negative seems to dominate.
Reality is not the problem here. It is our beliefs.
Our beliefs tend to create our reality, not the other way around.
Our beliefs shape how we perceive the world, how we make sense of it and then magically (almost) create actions to support that belief. If we believe it’s possible (to do almost the impossible), we will take massive action to try to make it happen. You see this with children, who are inspired to make a difference, to learn a sport or to master a subject. Their efforts follow their beliefs.
On the opposite side of things, if we believe something to be impossible, we will simply do nothing. When your son states that sports are stupid, he would never invest in something ‘stupid.’
Whatever we believe, we must act consistent with those beliefs. We (unknowingly) create a world that is consistent with that belief. The child who sees sports as stupid will only find stupid comments to make about the sport.
Why is this a problem? Well, if your child holds a limiting belief, that belief will set the limits on their life. It will set the limits on what they attempt. Beliefs set limits on persistence, happiness and many other traits. Beliefs open or close the doors to life happiness, satisfaction and success.
It is important to notice is that once a child adopts a particular belief; they see the world through those beliefs. It becomes reality. In fact, kids (and adults) find it very difficult to perceive life from any other perspective.
1. Don’t get seduced into feeding the negative beliefs.
Most of us recognize, and get frustrated hearing destructive, self-defeating comments from our children. We then get pulled into trying to correct these negative statements. These statements reflect the underlying beliefs.
Yet, your corrections do not change these beliefs. Instead, every time you respond, correct, redirect, argue, provide commentary upon, or in any way engage these statements…you are actually inspiring the negative belief.
Why? Because your repeated attention to the destructive belief teaches your child that you care about that belief. Their brains cling to the thoughts and beliefs that most consistently attract parent attention. This is critical to understand.
So the number one rule is to make sure that you are not giving lots of energy and attention to these thoughts when they arise. When your child expresses them, don’t feed them with a repeated suggestions, redirection or feedback.
When you can walk away from these negative beliefs, your child has the chance to walk away from them as well.
2. Nurture “truth” when your kids are NOT caught in negative beliefs.
The goal here is to teach your kids to drop the negative stories that limit their ability to feel good and do their best. We want to encourage beliefs grounded in reality.
Pick a time when your kids are not caught up in one of these negative, debilitating moments. In other words, when things are going well, have a conversation with them about how they sometimes talk about themselves, or the world, in negative ways.
If they are old enough, explain how any belief we adopt becomes our real world…no exceptions! Let them know that their strong beliefs will set any limit upon their life they choose…be it small…or be it awe-inspiring.
Talk with them about alternative beliefs, and what you view as reality. You want them to know “truth” as you see it:
• You can do it.
• I believe in you.
• You are capable and intelligent.
• You “get it”.
• You do your best.
Encourage your children to practice saying these silently and repeatedly, and let them know how much you believe in each of these beliefs.
3. Get practical.
Use real life examples; explain how we are eager to shoot the foul shot at the end of the game…if we believe we can make it. Talk about how we are willing to try new things when we believe we will do okay. Explain how much easier it is to take the test when you have strong belief that you will do your best…and that is enough. Give personal examples of your own persistence, once you were certain you could do it.
If you’re daughter keeps saying that she is stupid, let her know that you view her as intelligent, creative, and capable. Because you know this to be true, let her also know that you will not keep correcting her, but instead she’ll have to discover the truth for herself. Explain that you will be walking away from :”all the lies you tell yourself about your abilities.” Remind her that it will be better for her when she learns to do the same…walking right away from that negative belief. From that point on, remember to walk away from the negative belief…so she can learn to walk away from it, as well.
One of the most frequent questions I receive is from parents who are willing to use consequences, but find they do not work. In fact, they have often read different books, and have tried many types of consequences.
For example, I read comments like:
• I have used time out, and it doesn’t work with my son!
• I take away their toys, and they laugh at me.
• When I say ‘no video for a week’ my son says, ‘I don’t care.’
Guidelines for Getting Consequences to Work
1. Don’t Believe Your Child
With the easy kids, consequences are simple. You apply them, and they work. No sweat
However, for the more challenging child, finding effective consequences can be … well … challenging. One of the ways that we get thrown off course is that we believe what our kids. In other words, when they simply shrug and say, ‘I don’t care,’ we tend to give this way too much weight. For many children and teens, they clearly understand the way things work and their instinctive response is to minimize the impact of your parenting choices.
Bottom line: Don’t believe them when they shrug off the consequence. Instead…
2. Keep the long view in mind
What do I mean? The long view is not concerned with the immediate response. Whether they are upset about the consequence, or they seem to ignore it, you just hold your ground. And instead of getting caught up in their reaction in the moment, become more interested in the effect of the consequence over time. What you will find is that the consequence usually does work, but you must…
3. Stay consistent with the rules and consequences. Don’t keep changing them.
If we get caught up in trying to get our more challenging child to ‘react’ to a consequence, and care about it, we then tend to keep changing or adding to it. This is a sign of desperation. Don’t do it.
Instead, keep with a consistent game plan. Watch what happens if you stay with the reasonable, but consistent consequence for six to 10 times. Ignore the response, but stay firm and follow through. This will almost always work, if we add one more element:
4. Try to make the consequence immediate.
Delayed consequences usually do not work, or at best are temporary fixes in desperate times. For example, your daughter wants to go to the dance, and we hold it over her head in an effort to get some cooperation. This approach will not last.
Instead, we want to strive for the immediate consequence. This is at the core of effective consequences. We also need to add one final distinction:
5. Keep consequences short and sweet.
If you create prolonged consequences, you tend to create a more punitive and harsh feeling environment. For the angry child, this just promotes more anger.
The goal is not that a single consequence does the job. Please understand this.
Changing behavior patterns is a learning process. Thus, we must accept the need for repeated use of firm and powerful consequences, but not make the home too punitive and take things away for extended times. When we do this, consequences do lose their power.
Next week, I will discuss how we bring this all together with one of my favorite universal rules and consequences.
Here’s a recent question one of my coaching clients presented: “My son is 7 and still keeps asking for me to get everything for him. Why doesn’t he learn? I keep telling him to get it himself, over and over and over again. But he never seems to get it. He comes back the next day, and just does it again.”
So, the problem is not that her son is dull, or disabled, or even struggling with Attention Deficit Disorder. It’s none of that.
For many of you, you may have noticed this remarkable rise in children who seem to be almost incapable of growing into more independence. For some of you, you are staring at them …perhaps this very moment 🙂
So…if there is no medical or psychological reason for this pattern, what is it?
It’s really about words. Too many words. Spoken too many times. Repeated over and over.
And…the problem is easily corrected by understanding the difference between words and action. Here’s the bottom line: Lots of words…means the words get diluted. They lose value…as it relates to changing behavior.
The tendency is to think that words change behavior. Let’s be real about this…if words worked…I (and all other Psychologist) would be out of business…
(Any by the way , within a week of changing her strategy of continuing to answer her son, he dropped the relentless, helpless-like requests that were driving her crazy!)
If words are constantly flowing out of your mouth…you will find several things unfolding over the years. These will be….
- You have to use more and more words to get things done
- Your words seem to have less impact
- You feel like you can never just ask once…and get it done
- You have to raise your voice, and end up threatening to get the kids to listen
- Your kids use words to AVOID taking the ACTIONS you would like them to take
Thus, all of these are signals that words MUST FOLLOW your actions…not your actions (i.e., what you model…and the consequences you implement) following lots of words.
When you can really grasp the power of this, it puts you on an entirely different level of respect with your children. I know of no single concept which, when mastered, brings you more return for your investment.
It requires that you remain impeccable in your own actions…and that you ensure that you walk your talk. We then must model the very actions we seek from our children. Next, we must learn to focus on the events (consequences) that follow their actions…and understand that such actions will teach much better than our words.
If we walk our talk and live in that space…we see our children actually “get it.” And, they get it with much less drama, significantly less words, and they find their way much more quickly. Test it…and see what happens!