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We have a kindergartener whom we homeschool. We also send our child for once-a-week violin lessons, which requires us to practice with our child every day.

Most of the times, our child is motivated to work hard at her writing, math, and violin practice. At other times, our child just has a bad attitude towards homeschool and violin practice.

We are thinking of making after-dinner dessert conditional on good behavior during her "work time". In our minds, dessert seems like a natural consequence of working hard. After all, if our child were an adult, and did not work hard, our child would only be able to afford basic food, and not the very tasty desserts our child would want to buy. FYI: Our dessert is generally healthy but is sweeter than other foods, usually clementines, apples, frozen berries but sometimes ice cream.

  1. What are the pros and cons of such an approach?
  2. Have you tried this approach personally and has it worked for you?
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    Only a personal reflection here, but this could lead to a very unhealthy relationship with food and an emotional trigger, regardless of how healthy the dessert is. – Brian Robbins Mar 30 '15 at 22:13
  • I don't know if I'd say this would lead to an unhealthy relationship with food as much as a constant expectation in they younger years. People grow up and as logic seeps in they may become easier to bribe with healthy or less frequent options. My kids were initially bribed by candy because I'm an idiot and made that mistake. Then $2,000 in cavities later I was able to bribe them with Play-Doh time and stickers. Which they seem equally excited about. Every meal starts with a "deal" now. I don't really mind too much. But while you can, maybe consider other means before it becomes mandatory. – Kai Qing Mar 31 '15 at 0:54
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    You want to restrict your child's access to fruit? – DanBeale Mar 31 '15 at 8:10
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    Probably not a good idea to motivate your kid with something you want her to learn to moderate herself later. You'd be effectively trying to teach her to moderate her motivation. – Ian MacDonald Jul 12 at 19:52
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The first issue is that kids that age don't think that far into the future. Something that happens several hours away isn't motivating for them. It needs to be more immediate. Otherwise, it feels to them like they were forced to do things they didn't want to all day, then to top it all off on a completely unrelated note, they don't get dessert either.

Extrinsic motivation only works to a degree. It can jump start a child's motivation, but ultimately, she needs to want to do it for her own reasons. Since she already does okay "most of the time," I think it's unlikely to help much in the other times. You need to find out exactly why those other times are different.

Don't make the all-too-common mistake of assuming that needing to work hard as an adult means always needing to work hard as a child. Children learn to work hard by playing hard.

You have a lot of flexibility available to you as a homeschooler. Use it. If she's struggling with motivation, let her do something else for an hour or two and come back to it. It's funny how much more motivated they are when something is their own choice, even if you planted the idea in the first place.

For example, out of the blue a couple weeks ago my seven year-old started asking to learn about Ancient Egypt. He took to it with great enthusiasm. I assumed he had heard about it on a TV show or something. When I mentioned it to my wife, she said she had introduced the topic a few days earlier but he seemed utterly bored by it, so she dropped it. It only took a few days of mulling the idea around in his brain to go from utterly bored to actively seeking out information. By us not forcing the issue, he was able to get into a much more receptive state.

Especially something like playing an instrument requires a delicate balance of motivation and hard work. Missing one or two formal practices a week won't make much difference in her musical ability. However, I've seen many times how the cumulative effect of being forced to practice against your will hundreds of times over the next 12 years can result in never touching the instrument again as an adult.

  • Good points about the need for immediate rewards, extrinsic motivation, and not pushing child too hard on instrument. – I Like to Code Apr 1 '15 at 16:27
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I'd recommend looking into the work of Ellyn Satter (a known child nutritionist with lots of experience on child eating issues and child obesity).

In short, her (scientifically documented) theory is that controlling kids portions can lead to a distorted view of food and portion control. Kids have the inborn ability to stop eating when they are full until society destroys that ability.

Asking your kid to practice violin in order to get dessert sends the signal that violin practice is something unpleasant that he has to go through to get something pleasant (dessert), weakening both his intrinsic motivation for music and his healthy attitude towards food.

2

The obvious "con" with this approach is that the child is going to realize that you're setting the performance bar for receiving dessert arbitrarily.

As soon as they work a little bit harder, they might get dessert once, but the next day you'll just raise the bar again like in Catch-22.

Then the child will realize that only rational thing to do is to essentially "go on strike", by systematically underperforming until you dismantle the dessert reward program.

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Bribes

Bribes appear to work rather well with children. They need to be short term, realistic and believable. Deserts are a good reward for eating nicely, but perhaps are too long term for schoolwork.

Find out what motivates your chid

Different children are motivated by different things. Some you might want to consider:

  • money
  • iPad time
  • stars
  • stickers
  • points
  • a turn on a computer game
  • stories
  • trip to sweet shop
  • game of chess
  • special time

Age appropriate

When children are young, pretty much anything you set up as a reward will be coveted. Rewards need to come quite quickly. A star drawn on a chalkboard is effective.

Older children are more discerning. Stickers won't cut it. Find out what they like and bribe with that. Money is often effective, and putting your child on commission teaches them the value of work.

1

Although not food, I tried something similar with TV.

I would say that my 4yo daughter could only watch TV once she had done her violin practice.

However I found that this was a negative way of doing things. However I tried to spin it ("just play your violin then you can watch TV"), it came out as a negative thing.

Essentially I was denying her TV. Which just raised the rebel in her and got nowhere.

I found the most effective was just giving stars and when my daughter got 10 stars then we'd buy her a doll or take her to the beach/zoo.

This then is a positive thing, you get something extra, something that she was willing to work for.

It was a bit difficult in the beginning, but typically when we'd get to 7/8 stars there's sudden enthusiasm that the 10 stars were nearly full.

We also gave stars for going to the lessons, so that a couple of stars would come more easily.

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I wouldn't sweat it. Although my wife and I constantly 'dangle the carrot' (weekend video games, friends coming over etc.), I look at meal time as a time to enjoy each other's company and reconnect at the end of the day. Making her part of the enjoyment conditional on her work builds tension and holds her to a different standard than you do (do you get the treat if you don't put in a full effort that day?). Most of all, I find it very positive to simply validate their feelings without letting them off the hook. Too often we need 'immediate correction' when would should just say, "That's ok. Take your time," and within ten minutes to an hour, they are right back on their game as the doldrums they seemed mired in have passed. Best of luck!

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