Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rewards Program

So, the little guy is bad at transitions. He’s fairly good (for a two-and-a-half year old) at following directions once he’s onboard with the current order of business, but has a tendency to just fall apart when asked to move from order of business A to order of business B. My wife and I had a strange conversation once where she tried to convince me that the little guy didn’t really like daycare and I tried to convince her that he actually loved it, which finally resolved itself when we realized that our son resists being dropped off at daycare (which my wife usually handles) and also resists being picked up (which is generally my job) because both are transitions and that’s what he really dislikes.

By far the most difficult aspects of this particular personality quirk of his come up first thing in the morning and at the end of the day. Waking him up, getting him out of pajamas and into clothes, out of the house and into the car, etc., make for one long and arduous chain of transitions, exceeded only by getting him to stop playing and sit down for dinner, get down from the table and get upstairs, get out of his clothes and into the bath, out of the bath and into pajamas, and (after a snack and a couple of bedtime stories which he unsurprisingly doesn’t mind at all) into the crib for the night. He never cared for being herded through those processes on our schedule rather than his own, and sometime after he turned two he really figured out just how many things he could do to express his displeasure: running away, going limp when we grab his hand and try to lead him back, kicking when we resort to picking him up bodily, screaming bloody murder, and so on.

After the obligatory “maybe he’s just having a bad three weeks or so” waiting period, my wife and I started addressing the bad bedtime behavior by reducing the number of bedtime stories we would read to him. Normally he gets three (actually three short board-books, and then there’s some calculus and negotiation where he can trade two short books for a medium book or all three short books for a long one) but if he refuses to cooperate with the efforts to get him bathed, pajama’d and bedded down, he loses one. If he gets with the program after that, great, and if he balks egregiously again, he loses another. And there were nights when he lost all three books, which meant even more wailing than usual, but there were also nights where just losing one book was enough to get him to snap out of a contrary mood, so it seemed like a decent enough system.

Of course the English Major nerd in me is wondering when my own book-reading trophy will materialize.
Still, when I was due to go back to work after the birth of our daughter, my wife worried about the little guy’s cooperativeness (or lack thereof) particularly in the mornings, when (a) I wouldn’t be around to help and (b) there aren’t any books inherent to the process to use as incentives. Thus, never ones to shy away from solution-oriented action, we came up with a new plan. We had previously been sweetening the bedtime pot by giving him a sticker at every bedtime where he hadn’t lost any books, but now we went further by dangling a prize for the little guy. The deal was that if he behaved cooperatively ten times (which seems like a clunky way of putting it but it doesn’t really translate to a span of days because some mornings it honestly doesn’t matter if he cooperatively gets dressed by a certain time, because he doesn’t have to go to daycare anyway, as opposed to the necessity of going to bed at a reasonable hour every single night) then we would buy him yet another Matchbox-sized Pixar Cars toy. We made a little custom tracking sheet to put happy face stickers on and everything.

And the good news is, it worked. There were a couple of hiccups where no amount of incentives seemed to be enough to keep the little guy on the straight and narrow and bedtime was decidedly unpleasant for all involved, but for the most part we were pleasantly surprised at how well asking “Do you want to earn your sticker tonight?” worked at getting the little guy to focus and transition from task to task. And fortunately the timing worked out so that he got his tenth sticker at bedtime on a Sunday, and when he woke up on Monday (a day when he didn’t have to go to daycare) he came down to breakfast and saw the toy on the kitchen table and was overjoyed and played with it all day long.

Now we’re on tracking sheet number two, with the requisite number of cooperative mornings/evenings upped to fifteen total. (Of which he’s filled five or six slots by now.) Which is all well and good, but it does kind of beg the question: what have we created, and how long can we keep this up?

Because make no mistake, by the end of that first day playing with his new toy, it was the little guy who was informing us of what kind of toy he wanted next. My wife was the one who countered with the increase of good-behavior metrics from ten to fifteen. And at some point I think the little guy may get even more audacious in his requests for prizes to be earned. Sure, right now he’s content with little $6.99 toy vehicles but sooner than later he’ll at least test the waters of asking for, I don’t know, a half-pipe in the backyard he can ride his giraffe-trike on. The whole system was something we came up with to try to minimize the power struggles, but I can see it turning into a power struggle in and of itself.

And on the flipside, I find myself wondering how far I can push things, too. Originally the plan was to find a way to stop the headache-inducing frustrations I mentioned above: the tantrums, the violent resistance, the obstinate obstructionism. And in that regard it worked like gangbusters, but lately I find myself wondering if the mere absence of the most heinous bedtime offenses is really good enough. The threat to withhold stories or stickers used to only come out when the little guy categorically refused to put his trains down and go upstairs, or when he ran screaming and naked down the hall instead of staying put for a diaper. He doesn’t do those things anymore, but sometimes he takes his sweet time climbing the stairs because he’s pretending his head is stuck to the carpet. In my calmer, more rational moments I know that I don’t really want to stomp all the whimsy out of him and turn him into a highly disciplined, well-oiled machine but … I just can’t be calm and rational all the time, and really, this system has very little in the way of checks and balances built into it as it is.

So, as usual, who knows where it will all end up. We’re making it up as we go along and I’m sure there will be constant adjustments. At some point we may even just reach a truce about getting ready for daycare and getting ready for bed, with no bribery required on either side. And then it will be on to the next major source of conflict (see: giraffe-trike half-pipe).

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