Animal trainers know that in order to motivate an animal, you must give the animal something better than what he already has. My dog gets fed every day, has access to water, and gets to live in our house and let herself out (via the doggie door) whenever she wants. In order to motivate her, I have to give her some kind of a treat that is above and beyond what she already has.
Animal trainers also use the smallest bit of reinforcement that is necessary. They want to have the option of escalating the reward in order to encourage further behavior from the animals.
With my children, I wonder what "rewards" I give them. Obviously all of their basic needs are met no matter what their behavior is. In addition, they have a huge selection of toys, books and movies at their disposal. Both my husband and I constantly hug, hold and kiss them. We both verbally praise them and tell them we love them all the time - sometimes several times a day.
So far they both seem to want to please me and engage me all the time. Catherine brings me books to read to her and sits herself down in my lap. Sabrina crawls to where ever I am in the house and pulls herself up on my pants leg. If I lie down on the floor, they both crawl all over me. I think they both crave my attention.
But can I withhold attention in order to motivate their behavior? I am so enamored by my children I don't think I can. Right now every time I give them attention it turns into a teaching moment. I explain things to them. We review colors. We practice counting. I make animal sounds. We sing songs. We paint. We draw. We tear paper. All of these are toddler skills they need to learn. Of course sometimes we just cuddle and giggle, but the physical exercise is good for all of us.
Is giving a child a reward for good behavior just bribery? Perhaps. That is one of those debates I can put on hold for now and address later. Right now my kids are motivated to please me. The threat of time out gets my three year old in line whenever she decides to challenge my authority. My one year old is devastated when she is told "No."
This post was inspired by the book "What Shamu Taught me about Life, Love and Marriage" by Amy Sutherland.