Rewards are a good thing

I was worried every day. I worried every time my daughter ate something sweet or acidic or sticky… because she wouldn’t let me brush her teeth. And when I let her try it was a brush biting, paste sucking gong-show. And then the sticker chart idea surfaced.

It ended up being a colouring chart when the dollar store sticker selection failed to impress her. The bonus part is that she is actually colouring now. Well defined squares are less scary than a wide open page. And the big huge bonus…. She is letting me brush her teeth!!! And floss!!! So tomorrow we are going shopping for a prize, at the dollar store.

Up till now I have not been the sticker chart/prize type of parent. The value of intrinsic motivation was drilled into me in teaching school as well as in the potty training book I read. Elaina did not get marshmallows or candies for doing her business. Instead, we gazed at the potty in wonder and cheered. She will still run up to strangers at the park and yell, “I went pee pee!”

But brushing teeth and flossing? I could not find any intrinsic value other than the long term vision of clean healthy teeth that aren’t dentures. I tried explaining that to a toddler but it didn’t work.

I thought about saying that she wouldn’t be allowed any treats but I knew I wouldn’t be able to follow through with that threat. I tried showing her propaganda cartoons about evil cavity causing bacteria. Her response? “let’s watch the cavity movie again!”

Another area that needed some rewarding was my piano playing. Ever since I was a little girl I dreamed of being able to play classical piano. I remember listening to Richard Clayderman tapes in our living room while playing air keys on my lap. I learned pretty decent chords and even wrote my own songs but sheet music was, and still is at times, hand trembling terrifying.

Many piano lessons and teachers later I was ready to quit but this ad about a piano app kept popping up on YouTube and finally one day it showed up on my phone. It uses the addictive psychology of video games and social media but I don’t feel guilty because I am learning classical piano! Usually boring note drills are accompanied by a rock or jazz band so I feel like I am jamming instead of practicing. Access to new songs is offered as incentives inside of flashy boxes full of gold. Instead of avoiding my piano I am looking forward to playing every day. I spend my time with “Simply Piano” and Forest is working on his guitar skills. Oh, dreams can come true!

I guess what I am learning from this is that some things don’t have to be so hard.

This year I have the goal of reading the Bible in a year. There is a wealth of intrinsic motivation- I love God, I am interested in the characters and history, it is life giving in so many ways but I have tried many times to read the whole library and I have not yet succeeded. I remember writing about how reading the Bible is like eating your vegetables. Sometimes vegetables need a little seasoning. So I am going through the bible in community online and when I can’t crack open the book I listen to Jill read it for me and share her powerful insights. And every day this graphic gets a little more encouraging.

Now, there are some days, all right, many days, when I need to sit down and remind myself that it’s not about filling this curved line with red. I need to ask myself what did I hear in the reading today? And chew on it a bit, all of the interesting, beautiful, confusing, weird and hard parts, and then talk with God about what I am learning about Him and me and my world how the message gives me strength to keep walking forward.

But without the incentive of community and a graphic, there would be a lot less bible to chew on.

Likewise, if the extrinsic hook was all that I focused on it would soon become boring and irrelevant. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation weave together in a complicated relationship that keeps psychologists and advertisers and many other experts researching and wondering about.

When I asked Elaina what prize she would like for brushing her teeth she said, “a medal!” I don’t know if we’ll find any at the dollar store but she certainly deserves one. And one day she will be an adult who brushes her teeth for the sheer joy of seeing pearly whites. Lol. Maybe. One can always hope.

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