A friend in my writing group made a suggestion a few weeks ago (she got the idea here): Pick three very simple goals for the week, related to writing or not, and give yourself a deadline. Then, pick a salary. Something small, like a plant for the garden or a favorite decadence (any Theo milk chocolate bar will do for me, thanks).

Setting goals isn’t anything new, right? But when was the last time you bought something for yourself for meeting – or trying to meet – those goals?

The mini-reward idea reminded me of our daughter. When she was about 18 months old, we started re-directing when her behavior hit the “disruptive” mark on our parenting tachometers. This led to a predictable push (“No!”), prompting a conversation between me and my husband about rewards.

I said using food or other enticing goodies as incentives for behaving sent the wrong message. In fact, I couldn’t understand how any reward would help her in the long run. I wanted her to be internally motivated to be respectful, not a product of bribes. He said it was a means to an end. Getting something (a tickle, a small toy, a few blueberries) for being agreeable would build internal motivation, so long as we included the right message along with the reward (“Look, you put on your shoes without crying! You must feel proud of yourself.”)

Even though it made sense to me at the time, it still makes my stomach churn a bit to offer rewards. Shouldn’t respect, kindness and a “calm body” offer rewards of their own?

The answer for a seven-year-old is no. I was reminded of this two days ago when my husband, sick of nightly tantrums, finally told her if she could take her shower and get ready for bed without screaming, running away or mean faces, she could watch a 10-minute YouTube video after her book and poem.

The girl was a darling. Positive. Helpful. Motivated.

Normally, this would bug me. Normally I’d give an internal eye roll, knowing she’s only working for the chance to zone out in front of the computer for a few minutes before bed. But now I see it as a tool: we’re using the bribe to help her build the habit of being agreeable. The habit of happiness.

“Daddy,” she told him after the video, “even though I said, ‘Yay!’ I didn’t want to get in the shower at all.”

“I know,” he said. “But don’t you feel better?”

“Yeah,” she beamed. “I do!” Ding, ding, ding!

Which is what happened when I signed on with my my writing buddies. I’d be treating myself to a pint of carrot juice at the end of the week, I told them, and attached three goals, almost as an afterthought. I got through my modest tasks and at the end of last week, I curled under a lamp with a novel and the juice. It was a treat. But it was also a motivator. As soon as I was done, I thought of a new reward and drafted more goals.

So tomorrow I’m buying myself an aloe vera plant. That’s something (along with greater discipline) I’ve wanted for years.


Image by Adrian Nier (Creative Commons license).