Is Nature Bribing Us? An Ode to Incentivizing as a Parent.

Sometimes parents get hung up on a relatively healthy desire not to “bribe” their children.  This makes sense. Bribing sounds bad.

Let’s zoom out from parenting and look at nature.  If we examine two variables when they’re linked: “suffering” and “reward,” we see they arrive in either order.  Sometimes the reward comes first and then the suffering shows up later.  At other times, we suffer first and then the reward comes later.  Addiction/drugs are the quintessential example of reward-first-suffer-later (we drink too much, gather some artificial euphoria and then we’re hungover the next day).  Exercise is an example of the other side.  We suffer first and then, after a very significant delay, we get the reward/results.

Back to parenting.

I would assume every parent would agree in the value of their child learning how to operate in the one direction: to suffer first and then get the reward later.

(Right?  Because the extreme polarity would be:  “I just hope my kids live for the moment with complete disregard of what kind of suffering they’re creating for themselves in the future.”)

We want kids to have the ability to choose suffer-first-reward-later.  If you don’t equip them with that ability, they will have a difficult time in life after you’re gone.

Incentivizing is a way of teaching your children how to suffer first in order to get the reward later.  And you’re not teaching them with your pointless, pointless, pointless words.  You’re teaching them with the system you created.

Look at the opposite: when we give a child something for nothing, we’re teaching them that effort isn’t required in order to be a human and that’s simply not true. If I don’t put effort into having some sort of hydration, I’ll be dead in a matter of days.  Effort is necessary. Effort is suffering. Suffering can bring reward.

Think really hard about all the things you “give” your children; and this includes giving effort as well, like laundry, packing lunches, driving them places they want to go, etc.  It’s not all about money. You can create whatever type of reward system you’d like. It’s your house.

Match up those “givings” with the things you’d like to see them do.  Whatever is important to you.  Putting their dishes away.  Getting up and ready on time. Not beating up their little brother. Whatever.

Try and set up your household up so that it’s a win-win for you: your life actually gets easier if they make bad choices.  For example, maybe you normally fold their laundry.  Maybe they take folded laundry for granted.  If they get a disciplinary phone call from school, you don’t fold their clothes for the next couple loads of laundry.  (This may challenge you to be ok if they wear wrinkled clothes.)

If you set it up correctly so that it’s a win-win for you, it will create good boundaries (their choices, their consequences) and this is one of the biggest lessons to teach them (their life, their responsibility).

Meaningful effort is suffering with a point.  We want them to be examining their behaviors and what they’re creating, with a healthy balance of where the suffering exists in their lives.  We want them to have the strength to delay gratification in some key areas (like exercising, saving money, excelling in school, contributing to society, providing for their loves ones, eating healthy, etc.)

And parents, please don’t over-work!  You have nature at your disposal!  Since this stuff is built into nature, a lot of times you can just get out of the way and let it teach.  The child will be surrounded by the lesson: “when I put meaningful effort into things, goodness is created.  And when I don’t put effort into things, not much good happens.”

So, to recap, is nature “bribing” us when it says, “hey.  If you start doing 5K’s pretty often, you’ll get paid with feeling awesome.” ?

Entertain the idea of trading an “allowance” for a “bribery system.”  Let’s say you currently give them 20 dollars a month for being alive (you know those jobs where you get paid for being alive?  er, wait… what?).  Instead, consider breaking that down into what tasks you’d like them to complete.  And if they don’t complete the task?  Sweet, that’s extra money for you.  Don’t nag.  Create a system where they earn incentives. Or they don’t.  You are fine either way.

Don’t feel weird about bribing your children.  You’re teaching them how life works.  It’s built into nature.  It’s good.