Why should I? Stage 2: to get rewarded

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

Stage 2: self-interest orientation.  Pre-school age onwards

  • In the early primary school years children learn that it is in their interests to behave, as then good things come their way. Their motivation is for their own benefit (“what’s in it for me?”), but they are aware that they need to behave in “good” ways (those that consider others interests and needs) to get that reward. 
  • So a good action is one that leads to a reward.

Punishment is a stick, activating fear.  As a motivator of good behaviour it works, but it is potentially problematic because it leads to anger and fear (both mind-killers), shame and incompetence, and rather than bringing people together it leads to conflict and avoidance (relationship killers).  It creates a feeling in the recipient of something being done tothem, and thus out of their control.  It also creates a feeling of missing out and not getting enough, and this generally increases their focus on themselves.  It is hard to consider others if you don’t think you are getting enough.

Reward is a carrot, activating desire.  As a motivator of good behaviour it is more helpful, though less immediately powerful.  It brings people together.  Rather than shame, the child feels a sense of success and competence. It creates a feeling in the recipient of something being done withthem, and a sense cooperation.   Feeling like they get enough, it makes them more likely to look beyond themselves and see others and their needs.   

In the “self-interest reward” stage, the child is still self-focused and only valuing themself, but they are increasingly becoming aware that to get rewards they need to consider the people around them. This is an important transition step to entering into stage 3 where they put a value not just on the reward itself, but on the other person thinking well of them and behaving in a way to achieve this.  

In stage 2 you have the option of talking about receiving a reward for obeying the rules.  Like stage 1, they are still focused on “me”. However, in this case the focus is on what you do want, not what you don’t want.  It is only a slight change in language, but it can make all the difference in the relationship atmosphere between parent and child.  

In many ways, what you are trying to develop is their empathy.  To get their focus off themselves and to consider and value others and their needs. Empathy alone is not enough to develop morally, but it makes the thinking about and valuing of others easier.  The empathy deficit in children with autism spectrum disorders is a reason why helping them develop morally is not straight forward and often involves lots of rewards / bribes to get them to behave in wanted ways, but that’s a topic for another time.  

When a rule is trialed and a cost is needing to be added, it is helpful for their moral development to have both a reward and a punishment if possible.  And if only a punishment is possible, to spin the absence of punishment as a reward. So rather than:

“If you get caught misusing your phone I’m taking it off you”, it could be

“I’m so glad you have your phone, and using it well means you get to keep it”.  

The child may still complain about losing the phone if it happens, but then you can honestly reply, “I wanted you to have your phone, because you love it and need it. And I want you to have good things.  I’m even willing to spend my money on things you want.  So when you get it back, as long as it is not misused again, of course you get the reward of keeping it”.

How we talk about rules and costs can make a difference to whether the child perceives it as a reward or a punishment.  Focusing on the reward reinforces stage 2 morality. Focusing on the punishment reinforces stage 1 morality.  

When helping your child develop morally, good and bad actions need to be “your business, but not your problem” so you can do the 4C’s of being cool, calm and connected before you try to converse and repair what went wrong with them.

In the next post we’ll be looking at alternatives to the “carrot and stick” as ways of helping your child’s moral development. Moving away from a “me” focus, you can gradually introduce the language of “us”, as this is the biggest change between pre-conventional morality and the conventional morality of stage 3 and 4.