Stars, Rainbows and Pots of Gold

A profound realisation from abandoned star charts.

“It’s not fair! My friend says if she scores an A in her end of term exams, she will get her own iPhone. This other friend, her parents have promised her money for getting a distinction in her piano exam! It’s just so unfair!” This is not the first or the last time I have heard such declarations of injustice from my children. They live with parents who do not believe in incentivising them materially to achieve certain grades or scores. Disgruntled, she reluctantly consoles herself  with “I know. I know. I know what you’re going to say – what else would be worth more than a hug and a kiss from your mom?” I smile empathetically and offer no retort.

For many years, I have been unable to articulate why I am ineffective in administering star charts or incentive programs at home. It is not to say that we have never celebrated our children’s effort or achievements. Rewards are received as surprise treats. They have initiated proposals to us which we have considered and acceded to. At the age of six, our youngest child desperately wanted a hamster as a pet. She pitched that if she completed her daily chores for a whole month without having to be reminded, would we allow her a pet hamster? She impressively achieved it and we welcomed Honey Macaron into our home. Sadly, after a few months, her weekly cleaning of Honey Macaron’s cage triggered her asthma, so we found the hamster a new home. While the end of this incentive story was heartbreaking, I digress.

As a motivational tool, some reward systems create expectations of a direct correlation between completing a set of tasks and the immediate receipt of a material reward. Not every action in life will reap a tangible reward, let alone deliver immediate gratification. I am cautious about encouraging a sense of entitlement and nurturing children who only take action after a favourable “what’s in it for me?” evaluation. How about taking action simply because it is your responsibility or that it is a way of expressing gratitude? I have tried to find creative ways to inspire action from my children. For example, making their beds has been coined as “1-minute appreciation in the morning”. I did a quick survey around my parent friends and most admitted that while they would like to implement it, not many have been successful, with the early morning rush, to insist their children tidy their own beds on weekdays. A few were successful by offering a reward. I decided to experiment without any enticement. One relaxing bedtime, the children and I discussed how each of us loved snuggling or reading in bed, how much time we spent in our beds overnight and the importance of a good night’s rest. I suggested that routinely making their beds in the morning would be one way they could express their gratitude for the adults who tidy around them. I confess my method is unlikely to yield as effective a result as dangling a personal iPhone reward for bed making, but when I ask them “Have you done your 1-minute appreciation this morning?” it feels less like nagging than a reminder to express gratitude.

Through avoidance of direct reward schemes, I hope to lessen the effort my children will need to devote as adults, to recalibrate the balance between external fulfilment and inner contentment. I encourage them to find happiness in the present moment, to recognise that the overwhelming sense of self-pride, tremendous satisfaction and uncontainable excitement they feel as a result of an achievement, is the ultimate repayment of their own effort. Any tangible reward may distract from fully experiencing an exceptional, inimitable emotional uplift which nourishes and powers the soul.

I desire for them to set their own goals and find ways to inspire themselves to achieve their dreams. The gift may be in the journey towards realisation of their own vision. To my dearest children I say, “While you may map your dreams with stars, illuminate your journey with magnificent rainbows and the pot of gold that is your heart.”

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