YESTERDAY morning a fight with my five year-old daughter left us both in floods of tears. The cause of the battle? I’d promised her a new book if she got ready for school on her own. When she refused to put her shoes and socks on, I took the book away, setting off a tantrum that would have made any toddler proud. In the end, she had to be carried to the car, kicking and screaming. By the time we got to school I felt like I’d run a marathon. I got back into my car and burst into tears of frustration. I’d set a clear boundary of expectation, offered a reward for the completion of the task, given her plenty of time and then held my ground, even though it was tempting to give in just to get her in the car. Where had I gone so wrong?
“It sounds like there were two five year olds in the car by the end,” educator and founder of Mindful Parenting Joanne Jewell says gently when I seek her advice. “I’m struggling to understand what taking away the book had to do with getting ready for school.
“Coming in with a punishment that in no way reflects the behaviour you’re trying to curb doesn’t teach your child anything. Remember when your child is upset they’re not doing it because they want to annoy you. They’re doing it because they’re reacting to a feeling they’re having. What we have to understand is that young children are all about emotion and the best way to calm them down is empathy and compassion.”
Parenting using punishments and rewards in the way that ended so disastrously for me is a system familiar to us all. The chances are we were parented using this technique or we do it ourselves. But it’s now coming under increasing criticism with new research suggesting it can leads to materialistic children with a decreased sense of wellbeing as adults.
“Our research suggests that children who receive many material rewards from their parents will likely continue rewarding themselves with material goods when they are grown – well into adulthood – and this could be problematic,” says Professor of Marketing at University of Missouri, Marsha Richins, the author of a recent study, which suggests material parenting can make children more insecure and less able to cope as adults.
“Children who receive rewards are more likely than others to use possessions to define and enhance themselves,” Marsha Richins continues. Even with the best intentions, material punishments or rewards should not be your first line of defense as parents.”
In a place like the UAE, where shopping is practically a national sport, it’s even more important not to let material parenting take over. “Dubai certainly has a reputation for being materialistic,” says clinical psychologist at the Lighthouse Center for Wellbeing, Dr Rose Logan. “One of the biggest concerns with that consumerism is that having “the right stuff” becomes a source of self-worth and value. So rather than building a robust, internalized sense of yourself, you depend on external factors and outcomes. This makes us fragile and susceptible to psychological distress.”
“When we use rewards, we remove the need for self-motivation,” agrees Joanne Jewell. “Material rewards teach our kids to be motivated externally instead.”
In addition to hampering their motivation, our tendency to swoop in with a reward for a job well done could silence the inner voice they need to help them through tricky situations later in life.
“Everything we say to our children becomes their internal voice,” says Joanne Jewell. “Rather than giving them something to make them do something, we should give them the right kind of praise for the effort they’ve put into it instead.
“Whenever we praise we need to be ask ourselves whether the words we’re using are ones that the child can repeat to themselves later when hit a challenge. Will our words get them through it?”
“Praise and pride in our children’s behaviour is a valuable way to develop their sense of self-worth. Providing positive rewards in this way does not require material goods,” Dr Rose Logan points out. “If we continue to give material objects as a reward for everything a child does, they will learn not to have a sense of value in their own achievement and may not develop feelings such as pride in their efforts or attempts. It’s also concerning that material offerings may start to be given in lieu of emotional support and connection.”
Talking to both experts, it’s clear that using material offerings as punishments and rewards is riddled with issues. So why do so many of us do it?
“The biggest problem with the punishment and reward model is that it works,” says Joanne Jewell. “We see an instant result. The child wants the treat so we think it’s worked. But reaching for the instant fix means we’re missing the opportunity to connect with our child and manage the situation. Our key job as parents is to teach children what their emotions are and how to handle them. Punishment and rewards is not the way to do that.”
Is there a better way to parent instead?
The good news is that there’s plenty of other ways to show your child how much you love and value them, without resorting to motivating through material rewards.
- The gift of time – “Countless surveys and self-reports have shown that children simply want more quality time with parents, friends and extended family as opposed to more material items,” says Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at The Priory Wellbeing Centre, Tanya Dharamshi. “Adults have a tendency to pacify guilt of not being more physically available with material items. If our children grow up learning to appreciate the benefits of spending time together with the family, completing a puzzle with grandparents or walking the dog with their siblings, they will naturally place a much greater worth on meaningful activities and life experiences.”
“I think often children enjoy experiences and time with loved ones more than stuff,” says Dr Rose Logan. “The joy of receiving stuff is short whereas experiences create memories that last much longer.”
- Counting your blessings – “Make it a rule to give back when we receive, be polite and courteous – holding the door open for the person behind you in the mall, reading a story to a sibling or eating together as a family are all activities that can be incorporated into everyday life and help children to understand the true meaning of core values,” continues Tanya Dharamshi.
“Ask your kids to name something they’re grateful for every day,” suggests psychologist Nancy Shah. “Materialism comes from a state of dissatisfaction or unhappiness. If we focus on creating kids who are happy and fulfilled, by definition they won’t be materialistic.”
- Lead by example – “Children need their parents to be role-models who can explain and demonstrate the importance of non-tangibles,” says Tanya Dharamshi.
“We must ask ourselves if materialism is something we’re passing down to our children through our own actions – for example coveting the latest car or handbag,” says Dr Rose Logan. “How we behave will influence our children no matter what we say.”
- Make sure everybody is singing from the same songsheet – “Once you have defined a behaviour you wish to change or modify, you have to agree how you are going to do this with everyone who takes care of your child,” says Dr Rose Logan. “Consistency in applying rules is the key. This may lead to tantrums and tears. Validate how your child is feeling if they are upset about the changes and then try and redirect them to something else.”
- Recognition rather than reward – “It’s not a case of never rewarding a child but it’s how you do it,” suggests Joanne Jewell. “If I buy something for my child it should be as a recognition for something they’ve done, never as an expectation for them doing it.”
Is your child materialistic?
FROM Lego to the latest LOL doll, sometimes it seems our kids never stop asking for things. To an extent that’s normal but how can you tell if your child is becoming too materialistic?
- Throws a fit when they can’t have something – While all kids are prone to tantrums – especially through the tricky early years – throwing a fit when you won’t buy them something shows they feel entitled to whatever it is they’re begging for and that’s bad news. Setting a boundary and working through the tantrum rather than giving in is the best way to nip materialism in the bud here.
- Refuses to get rid of things – we’ve all experienced that moment when your child spots something they haven’t played with for years in the charity box and declares an undying attachment to it. Struggling to give away something they no longer have need could be a sign of materialism. Instead of letting them take the treasured item out of the box, why not use this as a chance to teach your child the value of giving to others less fortunate than themselves?
- They are more focused on getting the item than using it – when your child finally receives the thing they’ve been dreaming about, do they only play with it a handful of times before discarding it in search of the next big thing? If they’re more interested in the value of ‘having’ it than ‘using’ it, now could be the time to focus on other ways to reward your child and increase their self-worth.