Dear Dave

Friday, 1 February 2008

Punishment and bribery

Dear Dave,

Yep, I quite understand. They really do drive you spare sometimes, don't they? You'd think a three-year-old would listen to basic instructions like, 'Don't poke yourself in the eye.' At the very least, you'd expect them to avoid the stabbing pain and temporary blindness after, say, the fourth or fifth occasion. But, hey, where would the fun be in that?

I've no idea how you can get Sam to stop. You could always try encouraging him to keep doing it, I suppose. ('Both fingers next time, son!') A bit of reverse psychology - that might do the trick. (I wouldn't try it with other parents around, though).

Children can be awkward like that. For instance, only yesterday, Lewis started playing a cheap, handheld Tetris game and Marie tried to grab it from him. She'd been fiddling with it a few minutes earlier and felt it was hers, despite the fact she'd been happily doing something else for a while. I told her it was Lewis' turn and she erupted in tears and whining. She continued trying to wrestle it from him. I told her that she could have a turn when Lewis was finished. She cried all the louder. "I don't want a turn when it's my turn!" she bawled. And, sure enough, she kept grabbing at the game until Lewis stopped playing and I handed it to her. Then she refused to touch it.

As I said, awkward.

I'm actually in something of a parenting quandary myself. I'm really not sure how to proceed. Marie keeps wetting her pants. Not usually enough to cause a disaster but enough to require clean underwear and sometimes a fresh set of trousers. If anything, the problem's getting worse as time goes on. The threat (and frequent reality) of having her bedtime toys confiscated has helped but she really could do better since she can easily hold it in for four or six hours at a time. Unfortunately, she's just a little too confident and is prone to leaving things too late. I keep trying to persuade her to use the facilities more often but she ignores suggestions and kicks up a fuss at direct orders. Then, five minutes later, she wets her pants.

Frustratingly, it's not that she's incapable; it's that she's just not putting the effort in. Sometimes she'd rather just do something else than visit the bathroom. This being the case, I'm considering whether to make going to the toilet more exciting. I'm sure a reward scheme would work wonders - she'd go nuts over a pink chart with sparkly stars. I'm somewhat reluctant, though. Having a first child like Fraser has always dissuaded me from these kinds of things. Even at nursery, he knew how to work the system:

The kids at nursery go outside to play in two shifts. When it's time to head out, the helpers ask the kids who wants go to the playground in the first group. Unsurprisingly, most of them usually volunteer to go straight away - small children will plump for the bird in the hand almost every time. Pretty quickly, however, Fraser started actively asking to be in the later group. This was unheard of. The teacher felt the need to question him further. He pointed out that the second group returns after tidy-up time in the classroom and that that meant less work for him. The teacher was so impressed with his mental reasoning, she let him go out with the second group.

The following day, however, he wasn't so lucky...

Marie is bright enough to try a similar scam but she's also creative enough to get away with it for longer. She'd claim that she wanted to go out in the second group 'so the crocodiles didn't sit on her toes'. And there's just no arguing with that. The prospect of stickers would have Marie on the toilet every five minutes claiming that her tummy was full of cats, or some such excuse. The entire bathroom wall would rapidly disappear under sparkly stars.

There's also the fear that she might suddenly declare that she had exactly the right number of stickers and decide to never go to the toilet again. You and I know that she'd be as successful as King Canute ordering back the sea but that wouldn't stop her. I also suspect that she would somehow arrange to make sure that I was the one who got my feet wet.

No, if this is going to work, I need to think it through carefully and maybe be a little more creative myself:

Let's see... I suppose, my main experience of this kind of 'Have a gold star!' reward scheme is Gamer Points on Xbox 360. It's certainly made me aware of some of the pitfalls of the system.

Each game on 360 awards Gamer Points for completing achievements within the game. Every gamer has a cumulative Gamer Score from all the games they've played. There's no purpose to this score apart from bragging rights and a warm glow of satisfaction but, done well, the points are quite addictive. Too many game developers get it dead wrong, though.

Most games hand out points for finishing levels. This is a waste of time since, if the game's good, I'm going to make steady progress through it anyway. If the game's dull, I'm not going to persevere just for a few points.

Some games, however, only award points for stupefyingly idiotic obsessiveness. Kill 100 times as many enemies as you really need to, find every single one of the 593 hidden tokens or complete the whole game without using any of the cool weapons that make the thing fun in the first place. The tasks are too much effort to even contemplate.

Other games reward trying different tactics. This is a good idea but is often poorly implemented. Frequently, points are given for doing something once and then again for doing it fifty times. Once isn't enough to explore the possibilities, however, and fifty times feels like an imposition. That said, this set up is still infinitely better than the games that keep what you need to achieve secret. That doesn't encourage anything but irritation.

There are a handful of games, though, that I've got more enjoyment and value out of simply because the lure of a few Gamer Points drew me along paths I wouldn't normally have considered or directed me towards new skills and understanding. This was accomplished by pitching the reward at the correct level for the amount of work involved and making sure some part of the reward was given at regular intervals. I need to do something similar when dealing with Marie.

I need a well-defined reward scheme to encourage a sustainable amount of effort on a moderately frequent basis. If the scheme could avoid filling up the house with sticker charts or the girl with chocolate buttons, that would be a bonus.

Also, it would be preferable if the whole endeavour involved a minimum of effort on my part.

Hmmm.... Tricky.

Wait a minute, maybe I can reward her with stuff we'd be doing anyway. You know, something along the lines of, 'Keep your pants dry until after lunch, and we'll do some painting.' That's not asking very much for very long and gives her the incentive of getting to do an activity she loves.

Ideally, we'd be doing exciting activities every afternoon as it is, but she's not to know that. It's all a question of spin. Rather than waiting until she has an accident and denying her her normal privileges, it's a case of promising those privileges ahead of time as an incentive against accidents. The results of an accident are the same (i.e. loss of privileges) but hopefully both the experience and outcome will be more positive. And with no extra work for me. Hooray!


I guess that's assuming I normally get round to organising those exciting activities every afternoon, rather than surfing the net while she takes forever to eat her lunch. Which, let's face it, may not entirely be the case. Still, I really would like her to gain full mastery of her bladder. Half a day without another accident would probably be worth the trouble of getting the painting stuff out or of heading to the swing park. It would be a well-defined, adequate reward for the amount of effort involved. I should really sit down and plan some other exciting activities to keep the momentum going. Maybe if I can think of enough then...

Hang on, there's something not quite right here. I suddenly have this strange feeling I'm being manipulated. It's almost as if...

Nah. I'm imagining it. She's only three. She couldn't possibly have planned this.


No way.

Definitely not.



Oh, who am I kidding. I'm in thrall to a diminutive pink princess.

Then again, if she keeps her pants dry, it will all be worth it. Gah! She's a cunning one, that one. I'll just go get the painting stuff out now...

Yours in a woman's world,


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