reward and punishment

There are times in my relationship with my children when I feel like I’m channeling the Commandant from The Great Escape, and they are Steve McQueen. The Bee in particular has an artful, almost Judd Nelson-as-John-Bender-like way of responding to punishment and threats (a reference perhaps more accessible to my Gen X cohort).

That sort-of “give me another” kind of reaction.

In a way, I almost admire it, even while it’s simultaneously driving me absolutely crazy. I mean, Steve McQueen is the guy we all wanted to be, not Hannes Messemer playing a Nazi, right? As a child of the ’80s, I certainly never wanted to be Principal Vernon. I want my kids to be tough, and to stand up for themselves when they have to. But why does it have to be so damn hard to live with them while they’re learning to pick their battles?

I know there are people that worry that they are too permissive with their kids. I’m the opposite. I’m much more worried that I’m too harsh on them, that my expectations for their behavior isn’t age appropriate. That I’m expecting them to grow up too fast, to act like an adult too fast. And there are times, in my frustration, that I get into a kind of feedback loop with the Bee, where our only interactions with each other are negative.

For the first few years of our parenting, landisdad and I were unaware of the beauty of the sticker chart. And after we did find out about them, we were sort of opposed–I mean, it seems so mercenary, to reward your kids for good behavior. Kind of like bribery. Then, last year around Christmas time, I finally broke down and made a sticker chart for the Bee. It was a revelation.

Later in the year, when she was having difficulty with her teacher, Mrs. X suggested a school sticker chart. It took a while, but eventually, her behavior did improve.

All that rewarding good behavior got me thinking. Do we all have an internal sticker chart that lets us reward ourselves for being good? Is part of parenting teaching kids that good behavior isn’t something that anyone is capable of all the time–but that it is possible to be a good person most of the time. To beat the averages, as it were.

We’re moving into a time in the Potato’s emotional development where he’s starting to approach every disagreement as the end of his world. He’s in that toddler place where he wants to do everything by himself, and is constantly frustrated by his own limitations. He wants ‘helpee,’ but only on his terms, in his way, and if his dad or I try to help him in some unacceptable way, he more often than not will collapse on the floor in a heap.

When the Bee was in this phase, I did some of my worst parenting ever. I’m a (mostly) rational person, and the constant irrationality of the toddler wears me down pretty quickly. In addition to that, when the Bee was a toddler, landisdad lost his job, and three months later, I got laid off to part-time, so we were both pretty stressed out. The struggle of being first-time parents of a willful little girl was more than we were up to.

This time around, I think that landisdad and I are better equipped to ease the Potato through his toddler-hood. Our financial state has certainly improved, and while there are new stresses, they are nothing to compare to the joys of living on unemployment (especially when it’s about to run out). And we have this beautiful girl, who has taught us so much about being parents. That we need to reward ourselves when we’re doing good, and not just punish ourselves for doing bad things.


August 23, 2005. growing up, thoughtful parenting. 14 comments.