June 15, 2024
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June 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

What’s in It for Me?!

“Why should I follow the rules when I still don’t get…”

I’ve heard this frustrated sentiment expressed countless times from inmates in prison. According to their way of thinking, they finally try hard to follow the rules, but they still don’t get what they want. So, why should they do the right thing? They might as well revert to their antisocial behavior and freely break the rules to get what they want. In not so many words, what these inmates are saying is that it’s not worth it for them to behave unless they get a reward.

It might be tempting to believe only inmates think this way, but it isn’t so. Do you remember what it was like to be a child? As children, we wanted rewards in exchange for doing what our parents told us to do. Well, lo and behold, children haven’t changed much over the decades.

Now that we’re adults, we tell our children to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of whether or not they receive a reward. It goes something like this: “Now, little Jehoshaphat” (I’m bringing obscure biblical names back into style). Please help your brother Zelophehad clean the living room.” In our imaginary world of make-believe, little Jehoshaphat always replies, “Sure, Eema. I’ll do it right away just because you told me to do it.”

But, let’s not kid ourselves; our little angels aren’t always little angels. This is because children often lack internal motivation to behave well. So, every parent knows the power of rewards for convincing children to do the right thing.

More than a few parents have approached me over the years to express their concern about rewarding their children’s good behavior. Their point is that children should do their chores, pick up their toys and listen to their parents, so giving them a reward for doing these things sends the wrong message to them. They’re correct; we want to raise our children to listen to us and to comply with our instructions without the promise of a reward. The problem is that it’s unrealistic to always expect perfect and immediate compliance.

As parents, we need to accept that children tend not to have sufficient self-discipline or an inherent appreciation for always doing the right thing. As I discussed in this column recently, young children are essentially hedonists, operating under the pleasure principle. Because of this, they require external rewards (e.g., toys or extra time playing a favorite game) to motivate them to do things they don’t find naturally enjoyable (such as cleaning their room). As they grow older, we scale back the rewards.

As children become more mature, they require incentives less often. They develop an ability and a desire to override what they enjoy doing in order to do what is “good” for them. As parents, we need to teach our children that doing the right thing is inherently rewarding because, in the process, they’re better off for it. Healthy and successful relationships, self-discipline, good coping skills, successful careers, financial stability; all of these positive attributes, qualities and achievements derive from repeatedly doing the right thing rather than doing “what I want, when I want, how I want.”

So, for example, children who don’t enjoy doing homework may need incentives and rewards when they’re young. But eventually, they develop the capacity to do their homework without rewards. Eventually, the hope of getting into a good undergraduate school is sufficient motivation in and of itself to try hard in high school. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all want: an emotionally well-adjusted and happy son or daughter who is a Harvard-educated, wildly financially successful, brilliant Torah scholar who gets married, gives us many healthy grandchildren, and takes care of us in our old age?

Ah, yes, it’s nice to dream!

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental-health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710 or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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