Our First Parent Teacher Conference

For my master’s thesis I developed a “Structured Recognition System.”  It’s basically a behavioral reinforcement system for training and developing new employees that reinforced desired behaviors through low-cost techniques.  It was the recession, I thought that if no one was going to get a raise we should at least be recognized for extra productivity.  And no one wants a gold watch anymore anyway.  Had I been smart I would have patented the system following graduation, taken out a small business loan and struggled for a few years building custom iterations of the program for soulless corporations the country over.  Instead, following graduation, my wife and I walked the Cotswolds and months later our favorite souvenir of the trip arrived with a birth certificate and cataracts.

So while I never became the market leader in low cost employee morale solutions, I know a thing or two about motivating (read: manipulating) adults.

What I have learned over my four years of fatherhood is that I know absolutely nothing, nothing, about motivating children.  Kids will go from “I WILL DO ANYTHING FOR ICE CREAM!!!!!” to “ICE CREAM WILL MURDER MY SOUL!!” in the blink of an eye.  I admire those patient professionals dedicated to cracking the code of a kid brain.  I will stick with adults though.

The firstborn moved classrooms at daycare and, without getting into too much detail, we needed to chat with his teacher.

And now we are working on behavior correction!  And hopefully less laundry.

There’s a balance that’s much more difficult with children than adults.  Motivating adults to do better, or repeat the desired outcome routinely, is easy.  Stroke the ego, rewards according the person’s needs and praise a job well done.  The easiest formula in the world, quick enough to adapt as needed and repeatable time and time again.  With the kiddo, finding that point between over praise and neglect has real consequences.

To try to find that much needed balance, we have taken to a kid friendly structured reward system.  Every day he does what is expected of him, he gets a fun temporary tattoo.  If he makes it three days in a row; ice cream.  Five days means a new book.  Seven days means dinner with a movie.  Then the cycle repeats.  We’ll do the cycle for two weeks then stretch out the rewards a bit more, reinforcing that the desired behavior is expected.  Slowly moving to a point where no reward is given for the behavior as it becomes natural once again.

Frankly the whole thing is a pain in the keister.  However, we are now on day five and made a trip to the bookstore this very evening.

That he snapped back into doing what was asked of him with no hesitation, with just the promise of a cartoonish tattoo and sugary treats if he did what was asked, makes us believe he was toying with all the adults involved.  One more instance of him being smarter than us and exerting a new element of control upon his world.  I don’t know if I feel ‘played’, but there’s a devilish glint in the wee one’s eye these days that says, “I get tattoos and no day time interruptions?  I would have stopped for a doughnut weeks ago.”

So the trick to the whole system is keeping the kid excited about it just long enough for it to be effective without rewards becoming an expectation for years to come.  Kids are tough.  With adults a system can be shut down by saying, “sorry, budget.” or “well, we did not view the recognition system as keeping with our core values as a company.”  If a company’s core values do not relate to making employees feel good about how they are spending the majority of their day, that company does not deserve employees, but that’s an aside.  If the rewards are taken from a kid too soon, the behavior reverts.  Punishment and withholding don’t work, so that won’t help keep behaviors moving.  With adults I can identify some sort of intrinsic motivator that would keep a desired behavior as part of the routine.

But….kids!  Gah.  I have no idea what I’m doing.  Trying to explain to a four year old the true value of anything is only found from within ourselves does not go over well when he knows full well the value of a toy light saber.  That value is “all the fun”, light sabers have a value of “all the fun.”  Count that as a quantified.

As for the meeting with the teacher (getting back to topic at long last), it was pleasant.  Everyone was on the same page, happy to work together and move forward.  I don’t remember most of the parent teacher conferences from my school days, but I think they mostly went “all is well.  Next!”  Totally different experience here.  We left with a plan.  Plans are cool.

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