It’s always fun when you can shatter a treasured childhood memory in one simple crushing blow of honesty.
It happened the other night at dinner. I’m not even sure how the topic started, but my daughter said, “Remember when we had that Disney castle poster hanging up in the pantry, and I had to earn all of the princesses and put them on it in order to get a trip to Disney?”
I laughed. “Allie, we had booked that trip months before that. That was just to get you to behave.”
I was the only one laughing. My son and daughter were staring at me, processing what I had just said.
So all of the room cleaning, all of the vegetable-eating, all of the not-putting-your-brother-in-the-hamper stuff had no bearing on whether the Disney trip took place? The betrayal!
My wife had another look. So all of the room cleaning, all of the vegetable-eating, all of the not-putting-your-brother-in-the-hamper stuff wasn’t enough of a reward to keep this ruse going for a few more years!?!?! What were you thinking?
Sensing I had perhaps made a slight misstep in the parenting world, I decided to try and remedy the situation.
I explained to the kids that when they were little, trips such as Disney took an awful lot of planning (and money), and that we knew they were capable of good behavior, so sometimes we used little incentives to get them to act properly. It is a parenting trick done by ALMOST EVERY SINGLE PARENT EVER.
Now you may be saying that you have never, ever offered a hollow promise to your child for a reward that will most likely come either way. And to that I say, does the phrase, “Go to sleep, or Santa won’t come!” ring a bell?
I’d like to meet the parent who told their kids Santa wouldn’t visit if they didn’t eat their green beans, and then actually carried through with said threat and returned all the Christmas gifts. Actually, no I don’t. That person would scare me.
I further explained to the kids that there were things that they had, in fact, not gotten as rewards due to not fulfilling their ends of the bargains. They asked for examples. I looked at my wife. She gave me the look that made it clear this was my rodeo, not hers.
While I do think my kids are generally decent humans, there was certainly something in their 11- and 14-year-old brains that was trying to see if this was a huge loophole they had not seen their entire lives.
My wife decided to let me off the hook. She explained, much more articulately, that there is a difference in working on goals for something huge like a Disney trip when you are a lot younger, and just general, everyday good behavior for smaller rewards. I chimed in with the fact that they were now too old to trick into good behavior and thus should not count on any positive things in their lives from here on out. Welcome to the mean streets of real life, kids. This is why my wife is in charge of parenting.
Truth is, when kids are younger, you can dangle carrots for rewards, and it can help to instill a notion for earning things through positive means. I’m a firm believer in karma, and not just for negative purposes, although deep inside each of us is a dark little corner that does enjoy that. But I truly believe that when you’re a good, decent person and you do the right thing even when no one is looking and you generally treat people well, more often than not, life will treat you well back. That’s really the foundation we’re all going for when we raise our kids. And sometimes, we have to set up a system that may come with a smidge of a fancy backdop that helps younger kids to succeed. And, hopefully, once they get older, they will be able to do the right thing in life because it’s how they’ve been raised, and good things will come to them. Even if they don’t earn all the princesses.
Mike Gibbons was born and raised in Aiken, S.C., and now lives in Charleston. A graduate of the University of Alabama, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @StandardMike.