My seven-year-old was sitting on his bed, legs and arms folded, head down, refusing to do his homework. It was a little after 7 p.m., one hour from his bedtime. He was still in his school uniform, blue shorts with a red polo. My usual reaction to this was to tell him to get off his butt and do it. To say, “I didn’t have time for his crap.” That sort of thing. But recently we’d gotten some advice from one of our children’s teachers, and she recommended using positive reinforcement as a way to motivate our children.
“Make doing homework a fun experience,” she said. “That way they won’t dread it later in life.”
This was a bit of a new approach for me. I’m more of an “I’m not putting up with your shit,” kind of dad rather than an “I will give you something for doing what you really should be doing anyway” kind of dad. I work in education, and I want my children to understand how important a good education is. But at the same time, I want them to know that the world can be tough and unforgiving, and you don’t get candy for doing basic duties. So much of parenting is about struggling between being too strict, and being too soft, and I constantly fear that I am turning my children into lazy slobs, or loners who hate authority.
The homework struggle had been really frustrating latey. If Tristan buckled down, he could have his homework done in 20 minutes, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Rather he bitches about it, and drags his feet, and gazes up at the ceiling, and tells me that I’m mean, and how homework is stupid, and blah, blah, blah… The whole time I’m think about how easy his life is and how I wished I’d had a father who pushed me to do my homework. I want to tell him about how my Dad left when I was young, and when he was around he drank too much, and worked too much, and didn’t really care if I got my homework done. And how my mother worked too, sometimes three jobs, to make ends meet, so it really was up to me to do the work on my own. Which basically means it didn’t get done. But every time I try to say something like that, I feel like an old man telling my son that I used to walk to school up hill both ways in the snow.
“Tell you what, Tristan. I will give you a chocolate chip for each page of homework you finish.”
I smiled at him; feeling like my offer was generous. He’d never been offered candy before to do his homework. This positive reinforcement thing was already going amazing. I could feel it.
Tristan looked up at me, his eyebrows raised, forehead creased, his blue eyes seemed to say, “That’s it?”
“What?” I said. “That’s a good deal. You could earn three whole chocolate chips.”
Looking back at this offer, this was a lame deal. It reminded me of when my grandmother used to offer me a quarter to rub her stinky ass wrinkled feet. I was all about it around age five, but by age seven, I’d raised my standards and asked for a dollar.
“How about a cupcake for each page?” he said.
“Seriously?” I said. “When have you ever been given three cupcakes? That's like half a cake. No way, dude. What else you got.”
Tristan stretched his legs out, leaned back on his hands, and thought for a moment. “How about ten dollars per page?” He said. “That’s $30! I could get two new Skylanders for that!”
I thought about my standards as a child. I thought about how I never would have asked for that much money at his age, but Tristan, he seems to be from a new era. An electronic age where every thing he want’s cost much more than I have, or want to spend: tablets, video game systems, that sort of thing. And when I think about that, I didn’t know how to positively motivate him to do his homework without spending a shit ton of money each night.
Negative reinforcement is much more affordable.
“Who do you think you are? $10 a page? Seriously?”
He looked at me with a sad entitled face, like I didn’t really love him because I wouldn’t pay him minimum wage to do his homework. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m all for equal pay for equal work, but considering I’m 100% supporting this kid, I felt he was taking advantage of the system.
Clearly this was a top down problem. A management problem. I needed to be more open about my operation. I laid it out on the table. I told him about positive reinforcement, and how I was trying to bargain with him. I told him about how I often feel like positive reinforcement (and other master parenting plans) has to happen without my child knowing. I feel like the man behind the curtain. But every once in a while I will lay it all out, tell my son the truth, and let the chips fall. I can’t decide if this is laziness, frustration, or brilliance, but in this case I think it worked.
I went on, telling Tristan that I’d rather try and negotiate than yell all the time. “Do you like it when I yell?” I said.
Tristan shook his head.
“Neither do I,” I said.
“Tristan, make me an offer I can live with or I’m going to go back to making you do your homework, perhaps take away a privilege, rather than trying to reward you for doing it?”
I’m not sure if he fully understood what I was saying, but what I do know is that he understood enough to say, “How about I get 10 minutes of screen time for each page?”
“I can live with that,” I said.
Tristan smiled, and he got to work.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.