03 June 2010

Is bribery a parenting strategy?

I am not a salesman.  I have never been good at presenting things in a ways that makes people want them. largely because I could never get over my guilt at trying to talk them into spending money.  (You can see why that would present problems).  I'm at peace with my inability (and have largely given up a misguided attempt at a career in cosmetic sales), but I wonder sometimes how broadly applicable the principles of salesmanship are in the rest of life.

My brother is just beginning a career in sales, and we all expect him to do very well.  He has a product he believes in, and a natural ability.  He also studies the company's training material (which I probably could have done a bit more of) to learn as much as possible and improve his technique.  He taught me something last night, which I thought I would share:

Never tell a consumer that they're doing you a favour.  Never leave them with the impression that you need them to buy what you're selling.  Always look for how it will benefit them, and make that your presentation.

How does this apply to parenting?  Well, just suppose that a particular uncle wanted a good-night hug from his niece, who has a history of being somewhat ornery.  If she decides, on this particular night, that she isn't giving good-night hugs, the uncle has two choices.

A) He can beg and plead and tell her he loves her and act very sad that the hug is not forthcoming.  Because it won't be.  The "Oh, you're making me so sad" argument doesn't pull much weight with kids.

B)  He can say "Well, I only give one hug per night, and you haven't gotten yours yet.  So you can still come get one if you want, but this is your last chance."

It worked like a charm.  And now I'm realizing how much of parenting is really just salesmanship.  For example:

"Well, of course you don't have to eat your vegetables.  But we're having watermelon for dessert, and you can't have dessert if you don't finish your dinner"  (Surely a tried and true parenting strategy, but did you ever think about why it works?)

"Yes, you really do need to do this (go to sleep, take a bath, finish your homework, play outside), because if you do, this desirable thing will happen (you'll grow big and strong, you'll get to play outside, you'll make lots of vitamin D so you can be healthy)."

I think the biggest problem the parent/salesman encounters is finding a result that is strong enough motivation.  Because frankly, vitamin D production doesn't really motivate my kids to get fresh air.  Something more tangible and immediate than "growing big and strong" is sometimes required.  And then, of course, you get into the whole controversy about bribing children to do things they ought to do anyway.

There's lots of opinions about the appropriateness of that.  I say, in real life, people do things because there is some benefit to them.  Even if the benefit is that they feel good for doing the responsible mature thing, without any tangible reward, grown-ups are motivated by positive reinforcement just as much as children.  (Haven't you ever been told "Keep reading your Bible if you're discouraged!"?  That's to remind yourself what the rewards are for your behaviour.)

But children aren't able to look ahead to the distant future in the way that grown-ups can.  So offering them a tangible reward now, teaches them that there are, in fact, good reasons for doing the right thing.  That a reward is forthcoming at some point.  The key to using this strategy effectively, it seems to me, is to gradually stretch out the time between the behaviour and the reward, so that by the time you have an adult, the adult knows how to do something that's right, looking forward to a future reward.

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