Rewarding tantrums

A prospective client was telling me a story about being called in by the principal of his child’s school because the child was throwing tantrums and being uncooperative.

When he arrived at the school, he was shown a clip of his child hiding under the desk and crying. He told the teachers that his child hates having his photo taken, and that might be the reason why his child is crying. He was given subsequently a two-hour long lecture from the principal about why the child’s behavior is antisocial and not acceptable.

Later when he went home, he asked his child about what had happened. The child then proceeded to describe to him that on that day swimming was canceled due to rain, and he was sad so he started to cry. The teachers then started taking out their cameras to film him which he really doesn’t like, so he started crawling under the desk to escape. This created a vicious cycle where he was crying more which got the teachers even more upset at him which made him more miserable.

The acquaintance then proceeded to explain to his son that the reasons the teacher do that because of the germs in the atmosphere that can be taken down by raindrops into the pool which can make him sick. The teachers are only trying to protect him from any dangers that may arise from using the pool.

He then added an extra incentive, he told his children that if this ever happens again, to put it down in a calendar, and if swimming lessons get canceled three times then they will all go to a water park together. This made the child jubilant, and he worked with his sister to draw a table where he would write down all the days he missed swimming at school. He never threw a tantrum when swimming is canceled again.

This is a good story because the standard procedure for many parents, myself included, under situations like this would have been to start scolding the child. However, in this case, my acquaintance did a smart thing by flipping something that is negative into a positive incentive so if he goes swimming, he’s happy. If swimming is canceled, instead of feeling pain, the child would be even more happy as it’s one more step towards doing something he really likes.

I think another excellent characteristic of this is its unambiguity. I’ve tried implementing reward systems using stars - one star for being responsible, one star for being responsible without being told and one star for doing something extraordinary, making it a potential of three stars earned every day. Responsibility, in this case, is the daily rituals they need to participate in; such as picking up their toys. The main drawback with this is that sometimes it’s not clear what they have to do to actually earn the stars. Being responsible means having a perfect track record throughout the day; which in reality does not work. The connection between action and reward becomes arbitrary and based on how good a day the person giving the stars had.

After hearing this story, I would try making the following changes at home:

  1. Implement more than one type of stars
  2. Offer a big reward once a certain number of stars has been collected

These tweaks would make the reward system much fairer and hopefully would increase its effectiveness.