I approach many lessons with my children the same way I did in my own classroom as a teacher. More than that, I teach them lessons that reinforce my philosophy about the world and the kind of citizen I aim to be. Part of that, whether it involves bringing home their best report card or improving on their last one, includes a celebration in the form of a reward (or, looking at it another way, the reward of a celebration).
We expect our children to do their best in school. It’s a team effort: we have regular conferences with their teachers, and I participate in daily communication with them through our kids’ school planners. Once their work has been graded and sent home, we review it with the kids, sign it and return it to their teachers. There aren’t usually any big surprises when progress reports and report cards come home. However, there are often one or two areas that stand out from the rest, because their marks indicate they’ve exceeded expectations, improved in an area in which they may have previously struggled, or even lost some ground academically.
We’re on it like white on rice. The kids don’t get punished for falling behind. Instead, they receive extra work and we focus our efforts a little more in that area. They also receive hugs from me for the hard work they’ve done and the hard work they continue to do. But if we’ve set a goal to improve a specific area in which they’ve required extra effort, and if they meet that goal, there is a reward — anything from a special trip to get ice cream to a game they’ve wanted for the past year. It can even be monetary.
And I have no problem with that, whatsoever.
Why? I look at school as my child’s job (aside from his or her chores at home, which is an entirely different matter). Many would argue that pride in a job well done is truly its own reward, and that the struggle itself provides the best motivation. I agree with this. However, I think there is a lesson in rewarding the attainment of a goal: life is about improving oneself, learning, growing. Even a straight-A student has things to learn, goals to set. Accomplish those goals and you have reason to celebrate.
How we choose to celebrate those milestones are what some would call a reward. I call them a bonus.
Should I some day pen the literary opus of my writing career, and then be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and have a library dedicated in my name, which would be the greater honor? Which would I consider most personally satisfying? Hypothetical though it may be, I’m going to take a stab and submit that, for me, the most rewarding of the three would be, in descending order, my best writing, followed by the library and, lastly, the Pulitzer.
That’s not to say that aiming for the Big Prize wouldn’t be an adequate motivator… but I digress.
When my husband receives a bonus for a job above and beyond what is expected of him at work, he might receive any number of tokens of recognition. Some might come in the form of a letter. Some might take the form of a medal. Yet others might come in his paycheck… These are almost always unexpected and welcome surprises. They are also a form of reward, of compensation. He is also compensated for working extra hours, or for having to work someplace particularly dangerous or far from home. We do not refer to this as his “reward” from his employers. We call it a bonus, in recognition of something above what is expected, and his employers expect rather a lot. Neither do my husband and I consider acknowledging extra effort, hard work, or the attainment of an educational goal by our children a bribe, or a paycheck.
Einstein once said, “We have to do the best we can. This is our sacred human responsibility.” How could anyone argue that this should not be the case? A child’s education should emphasize this, in my opinion. Setting attainable goals along the way is surely a good way to go about it. When those goals are reached, we celebrate the event.
To be recognized for going the extra mile is gravy… and everyone likes a little extra on his plate, particularly after he’s worked hard, if you’ll forgive me for being trite. Because my children set reasonable goals with us, they have a flag at which to aim. If it takes them longer to get there, that’s fine with us. But the celebration once they get there reinforces for us — all of us — that persistence and hard work should be both encouraged and, yes, rewarded. Good grades deserve a treat, but working hard to meet a goal you’ve set deserves even more than that.
It’s a parenting strategy and personal philosophy that has worked well for us as a family, and as individuals. We keep each other motivated, and support each other along the way. And my children, I know, will have received years of reinforcement throughout their school years that hard work and motivation produce the best results, both in one’s personal life and career.