The Power of a Chocolate Chip

Pepper (10) and Lima Bean (8) take music lessons. Music is a huge part of our family culture, so I want them to reap the benefits that come from being capable musicians.

But they’re young so they aren’t intrinsically motivated to practice most of the time. . . okay, hardly ever . . . well . . . never might be stretching it . . . but not much.

So I’ve created a small reward system to help motivate them. Each day they practice without giving me a hard time they get a piece of gum. When they try something new, they get a chocolate chip. That’s right a SINGLE chocolate chip. That means that on a good day, they might get one piece of gum and five or six chocolate chips total.

I know, it seems like a ridiculously small amount. They can even go to the store and buy their own bags of chocolate chips and their own packs of gum. But it works so I’m not complaining.

Any reward is a form of external motivation, so you have to be careful how you use it. But sometimes you need a reward to kick-start a kid’s intrinsic desire to do something. And you have to remember that sometimes their intrinsic desire will kick in right away, and sometimes it will take years. (Eeek, parenting really is about taking the long view, isn’t it?)

So, when I decide to use a reward, I try to keep in mind the four S’s.

The Four S’s of Rewards

  1. Small A reward doesn’t need to be big. In fact, often a big reward can back fire. (See #3.) If you don’t set up the expectation of a huge payout, kids will work for peanuts (literally–if they like peanuts!). So think a single chocolate chip, a single jelly bean, a penny, one minute of computer time.
  2. Simple A reward system needs to be easy for you to implement. The system shouldn’t take more work for you to keep track of than it does for the kid to earn. A simple system also makes it much harder for a kid to argue for exceptions and extensions.
  3. Secondary The goal of the reward is to move the kid closer to intrinsic motivation. So you want to keep their eyes, and your eyes, on that goal. If the focus shifts and the reward becomes the goal, you’ve made your work a lot harder. While the reward may get the kid do something initially, keep talking about the big picture. Remind them and yourself where you’re headed. Include other categories of learning activities to speed up the process of developing intrinsic motivation.
  4. Style What motivates one kid doesn’t motivate another. One kid likes time with mom, another kid wants to watch TV, another kid wants treats. Design a reward that works for the kid. Tailor your rewards for optimal effect. Don’t feel like you have to be “fair” and use the same reward for each kid.

As I have gotten better at using the four rules above, my life has gotten easier, and my kids are more motivated to learn some of the things that I want them to learn. No reward system is perfect, and I’m always re-evaluating and tweaking, but I consider rewards my secret weapon in my adventure to inspire my children.

Ah . . . it looks like it’s just about practice time at our house. Now where are those chocolate chips?


Filed under Theory Behind It All

2 responses to “The Power of a Chocolate Chip

  1. Dani

    A few strategically placed chocolate chips were what finally motivated Maren to walk across the room on her own (at about 14 months). After that afternoon it was like something clicked in her brain and she realized, “Hey, I can do this, and it’s BETTER than crawling!”

  2. ToriAnn,

    Do you have a button for your blog I could put on mine,

    Thanks, Emily

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