CLAUDIA CONFIDENTIALLY

WHEN REWARD SYSTEMS WORK FOR HOMEWORK HASSLES AND WHEN THEY DON'T.

Dear Hassled Mom,

I recently learned of a new behavioral technique designed to help children with their homework that involves three happy faces and three rewards in a pot. If Mom or Dad are not happy, out come the happy faces (and the reward). Oh, no! By the end of the week, hopefully some rewards will still be in the pot for that happy child.

I love this game. Why not ask the kids to draw some smiley faces for Moms’ behavior, in fact? With kisses and hugs as a reward, Mom could be helped to stay patient, or allow a longer bath time, or read more stories at bedtime…The possibilities are endless.

All prescriptions need a warning label though, and here it is: This strategy should not be used for certain homework hassles. Two of the most common are 1) children who are not just lightly resisting doing their homework, but truly kicking, screaming and calling attention to their problem enough that teachers, principals and specialists take notice, and 2) mothers who are not just getting a little frustrated but truly kicking and screaming and yelling.

In both of these scenarios, happy faces and any other kind of reward system could lead to further power struggles. This is because reward systems have as their primary requirement, consistency. “Consistency” can become very quickly confused with “rigidity” when emotions run high.

When emotions run high “flexibility” as opposed to “consistency” becomes the ruling mantra. This is because if a child is too frustrated, they will not achieve anything by being forced to perform. They will just stress out. Similarly, what a mother needs when she is stressed out, is a nice cup of tea and not a whiny child. When people are stressed out, de-stressing becomes the primary objective, not homework.

I know it seems counter-intuitive to indulge children when they act too frustrated. But the time to talk to them about trying to perform better is not when they are stressed. Otherwise, the scenario that plays itself out is not pretty. The mother tells the child to do her homework. The child is tired and stressed, so she dallies and transgresses - playing with a doll at the table or finding myriad distractions. Her mother, in the name of a smiley face, gets more and more aggravated. This, inevitably, leads a further meltdown.

So there we have it, an unhappy child, an unhappy mother, no smiley’s and…no homework.

For these types of homework hassles, I recommend taking a step back from behavioral strategies that require consistency. Instead, I believe children should be asked to help their poor parent out. They should say to their child: “I’m stressed, I need you to do your homework.”
If the child can’t help the parent, the parent needs to continue to ask the child for advice. She should ask the child “what should I do? What if I’m not comfortable with you not doing your homework? What will the teachers think? When do you think this problem will get better? About three questions a sitting are good, and then, the cup of tea.

Parents who consult with their children will notice that the children are of no use whatsoever. They have no answers, and they like to say “I don’t know” a lot. This doesn’t matter. What matters is that dialogue replaces rigidity, and, with consistent dialogue, slow progress rather than strained control, is achieved.

Parents really can’t be expected to help their children tackle problems when they are in tense, angry states, which is an unfortunate freak of nature. In tense, frustrated states, children don’t learn very much, either.

Finding a place of calm in the wilds of conflict is not easy. How can we let go of anxiety, frustration, resentment, tension and anger? On a good day, it can take a single breath. On a bad day, it can feel like an endless journey.

Strategically speaking, taking the long route to getting homework done by setting an emotional stage in which your child feels fairly relaxed, will yield great results. If a child truly struggling with homework and a parent truly struggling with tension can sit together for one minute without an outburst of frustration, I think this is a great achievement.

So whether you can benefit from creative behavioral techniques that make things fun, or model for your child how to stay relaxed when the going gets rough, always keep your eye on the real goal – a happy childhood is built on the most mundane of moments. Asking your child to help generate trust and love should strengthen him or her for any challenge.