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    When the Thing Itself is the Reward

    December 26, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    In October, I potty trained our daughter Q. I mentioned around that time that a friend of mine had encouraged me to throw out diapers even during sleeping times from Day One. And, we had early success with that, which was very exciting. Around the time I announced our “success” {there is a reason I put it in quotes}, another friend commented on the post and asked what I would have done if we’d had continual failure night after night.

    Well, we had some regression recently, so now I’ll tell you the truth about what we have actually done, not just speculation.

    I tried at first to just change the sheets. I required her to help as much as she could because that is part of growing up in this area of life. But when she wet the bed five nights in a row, I started to reconsider the idea of daily changing sheets or bed pads or whatever became wet during the night. Also, we were still offering rewards for nighttime dryness {one or two chocolate-covered nuts}, and I wondered if this was effective.

    My prayer for my children in general is that they will learn to love the things I am trying to teach them for the their own sake: not because they get a piece of candy, or a high grade {this is why I don’t do grades}, or even praise. In fact, this is why, in addition to all my other angst, I have angst concerning my children participating in Awana.

    *tangent alert*

    Awana encourages children to memorize Scripture by having them earn patches for their club vest, candy, points for their team, and also “Awana Bucks” that they can spend at the club store on trinkets. On the one hand, I am content with their participation for reasons unrelated to this, but, on the other hand, I fear for the souls of children {including my own} who are trained, even for a short time, to see something other than God’s Word itself as the reward when memorizing Scripture.

    I think of these Scriptures:

    Your word is very pure,
    Therefore Your servant loves it.

    Psalm 119:140


    O how I love Your law!
    It is my meditation all the day.

    Psalm 119:97

    I have seen my oldest child begin to memorize a passage of Scripture, on his own, just because he loves something about it. Maybe he found it interesting or beautiful to the ear. He has done this with poetry also; something catches his attention and in the weeks to come he’ll be chanting little snippets to himself while he does his chores or while he plays.

    The difference in attitude has been interesting to me. When he is memorizing something Good because of love, he seems a different person than when he is trying to earn points or patches or whatever else he thinks he’ll get out of it.

    I see this also in my own experience. There is a difference between trying to earn the grades in school, and truly seeking wisdom. Grades almost completely short-circuited that for me. There is also a difference in the pride that comes from good grades and praise versus the humility which comes from a having a truth revealed to the heart.

    To bring this back to potty training, it just happened that my daughter saw the thing itself {being a Big Girl, as she puts it}, as the reward. I would like to say I know how to make this happen, but I don’t. It came from somewhere deep inside of her. She decided to grow up.

    Concerning the situation of wetting her bed, when I realized this I told her that she was going to have to wear a Pull Up at night. I just couldn’t change sheets day after day. But then I told her that if she could stay dry three nights in a row, she could go without a Pull Up again. Her eyes lit up: this was what she wanted! She didn’t want candy, or even praise. She wanted to take her place in the land of Big People.

    So she has worked at it. Whenever she wets the bed, we go back to three days of Pull Ups, and she disciplines herself to get back out of them.

    I keep praying that God will show me how to arrive at this place in every area. This is really one of the biggest differences between mere schooling and real education. In one, the student works through a system and earns merit along the way, the final merit being the diploma. In the other, the student pursues truth and graduates as a different person from when he began the process.

    So the question is how do we do this? How do we help order the affections of our children?

    The answer, or the beginning of an answer, lies in learning to identify the things which distract the child from loving the thing {whatever it is} in proportion to its worth and then removing those distractions from the landscape.

    I have recently begun reading Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. The first chapter is titled The Medieval Aesthetic Sensibility. In his second point of the chapter, he discusses a twelfth-century campaign against “superfluous and luxuriant art in church decoration.” The Cistercians and Carthusians both were up in arms over the pomp of the church buildings.

    Now, what is really interesting is the rationale for their objections. They were not, according to Eco, objecting to decoration or luxury in general. However, they objected to it inside the church building proper because:

    [it] merely distracted the faithful from their prayers and devotions…It was attacked just because of its powerful attraction, which was felt to be out of keeping with the sacred nature of its environment.

    To lift this objection and apply it to learning: we adults {based on a Darwinian view of the child, by the way}, assume that children have no natural love of learning or wisdom or goodness, even Christian children who the Bible clearly declares holy. Therefore, we introduce bribes of various forms.

    We think we are doing them a favor, that this is the only way they will learn anything or grow in any virtuous direction. And in the process, we compromise their souls, for we are, through our own actions, training their affections to love physical reward more than they love what is good and true and beautiful.

    It is my habit to use reward when teaching physical skills, such as potty training. I also use praise. But seeing that it is possible for the child to learn to love maturity more than reward has been eye-opening for me. Even in skills, we see there is something worth loving for its own sake.

    This is the time of year when I start to reflect on the year behind us and ponder the year in front of us. If I could work at one thing this year, I think it would be training the affections. I say this knowing that this isn’t a simple thing to do. But I want them to graduate from childhood with hearts full of love, and I don’t mean this in a warm and fuzzy sort of way. I mean in a passionate, full-of-care sort of way. I want them to care, in a knowledgeable, passionate way, and with appropriate proportion, about a poem and about a sunset and about history and about mathematics and about the God above them and the men around them and the earth beneath them.

    I am reminded that God rewards His people. In Revelation chapter 4, we meet the twenty-four elders who are sitting on thrones and dressed in white and crowned with golden crowns. If anyone has attained reward, it is these men. And yet here is where we have the most beautiful glimpse of well-ordered affections I can think of {emphasis mine}:

    And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”

    And so we see the reward is nothing when compared with Him.

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  • Reply Rachel R. February 2, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    I have got to remember to subscribe to the comments when I comment on your posts! lol

    I think that last piece of your last comment makes perfect sense. It is, IMO, why child training works.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts January 8, 2010 at 6:57 pm


    I like your thoughts! I like what you said about teaching them to recognize “which rewards have the greatest eternal value.” This makes good sense, and it sort of fits with the advice from Little Women’s Marmee which I posted this week. The idea was that money and wealth are fine as far as they go, but that having a home full of love was far superior. So in this Marmee was teaching her daughters to recognize the better thing, or the more superior reward.

    In my follow up post, I mentioned the idea that love is a superior motivation (as compared to seeking one’s own gain). That was fine, but you got me to thinking. There is a sense in which I am drawing a theoretical distinction which, in real life, isn’t quite as clear. After all, living a life compelled by love, living a life full of love, is itself a very rewarding thing. And it is rewarding, often, right here and right now, not just in eternity (though of course it is rewarding then as well). So we can’t say that trying to help them be motivated by love is actually an eschewing of reward, it is more akin to what you said, which is training them to recognize and desire the superior reward.

    I agree with you, also, that children are concrete (in general) and that what I’m talking about is more abstract. I think this goes with what GJ says about sometimes using one thing (like a physical reward) to get them to a place, but then not necessarily using it to maintain it.

    I do think that appreciation (taste) for a thing requires exposure, so it is possible to use physical reward as a means of encouraging exposure to a thing for which they will gain a taste.

    Wow. Did that last part make sense? It did in my head but when I read the sentence, I wasn’t sure…

  • Reply Rachel R. January 8, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Ultimately, don’t we all do everything for a reward? Isn’t it just the “content” of the reward that varies? For instance, with the Scripture memorization example, the reward could be physical (an item of some kind), it could be recognition of some sort, it could be the satisfaction of knowing that I am getting to know God better, or it could be the knowledge that God is pleased with me (or some combination of rewards). But any one of these things is a reward.

    So I’m not sure if we really aim to teach our children to do something for its own sake rather than a reward, or if we teach them to recognize which rewards have the greatest eternal value. The difficulty with that is that those rewards with the greatest eternal value are usually the most abstract, while little children are concrete thinkers. (I’m thinking as I type here, right along with you!) If this is the case, then what we’re really aiming for is the same as education in many areas of academics – to start with the concrete, and progress to the abstract.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts December 30, 2009 at 4:17 am

    Wow, Em, I’ve never HEARD of that! You would think it wouldn’t be necessary seeing as keeping score implies that scoring itself is the thing you want.

    I’ll say it again: WOW. That would bother me, too!

  • Reply Lift Up Your Hearts December 30, 2009 at 4:05 am

    I think my biggest pet peeve in this area is when parents pay their children to score in sports.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts December 28, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    Okay, so I’m working on a post that goes with this one. It’ll likely be ready tomorrow.

    GJ: I had to tell you that I was just like that son of yours you mentioned! I often rejected anything–especially anything of a religious nature–that I didn’t think of myself…I think I was a bit of a trial for my parents in this regard. Hopefully he tests your patience no longer. 🙂

  • Reply Julia December 27, 2009 at 4:07 am

    I agree with your post, Brandy.
    I am going to ponder how to help my children develop internal gratification rather than depend on praise/reward that comes from outside.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts December 27, 2009 at 12:22 am

    Okay, this is sort of embarrassing.

    Though I agree with myself in theory, I didn’t mean to post this today. I like to write, think about it, refine, think about it, refine again, and then post. Somehow my brain confused “save” with “post”. Either that, or I have gotten so used to using autopost on my other blog that I accidently did it here.

    Either way, now we are going to play a game called “write the post together.” It’ll be fun! 🙂 So…while thinking about what I wrote, I’ll also ponder what both of you said.

    Comments forthcoming…perhaps tomorrow. Right now I’m up to my neck in cleaning out my hall storage closet. 😉

  • Reply GretchenJoanna December 26, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    Learning styles and temperament need to be taken into consideration when talking about what motivates children. While homeschooling my five, I found that some really need to compare their progress with their peers, while others care not a whit but for the love of learning. And all of them have grown up to love God Himself–but of course, none of us ever perfects that kind of love.

    There can be value in a system that builds good habits, even if the system is not adequate to maintain the habits long-term.

    By the way, one of my sons spurned the Sunday school Bible memorization program I think just because it was imposed from outside and not his idea, and he had to miss out on all the candy rewards, which he said were not good for you anyway. I guess he didn’t love anything or Anyone enough, in that case!

    As my children got old enough to understand, I would be honest about the difference between the educational system and true education, and encourage them to see that there was not necessarily any educational value, and definitely no eternal merit, in jumping through hoops. If they were striving for good grades it was because of something they wanted, and not to please me.

    I think the most important way to cultivate proper affections in children is to do it in oneself.

  • Reply Ellen December 26, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    This is interesting. I’ve got to say that, though I agree with much of what you write, I don’t think I agree with a good bit of this.

    I love to learn and to read, and I also love to get good grades. Both bring me satisfaction, and both are a motivator. I don’t think that the motivation to get good grades has to kill the love of learning. Sometimes the grade is a helpful measurement to a child to see where they can do better, and it brings a feeling of accomplishment to see something tangibly rise as they improve.

    Having a row of badges is a physical proof that brings satisfaction as the child meditates on how far they’ve come since they started learning scripture.

    Grades were a motivator for me in subjects that I didn’t enjoy as much, and that motivator helped me to achieve in those classes in college, thereby helping me to try harder, learn more, and eventually, come to have an appreciation for the subject. We aren’t always going to learn just because we enjoy something, because we don’t enjoy everything, especially higher math. =)

    I have a summa cum laude B.A., and I graduated with my M.A. in history with a 4.0. When I tell people that, they know it means that I worked hard and gained a lot of knowledge in a field. It says something about the value I place on learning to the outside world.

    Sooo, what I’m saying is, grades can be a good thing in the life of some children. Grades didn’t kill a love of learning for me or my brother. In fact, they only helped us along over some of the hard spots as we got older. I would encourage you to consider using a grading system when your children get a little bigger to help them measure their own progress. If you don’t want to use A, B, C, don’t, but something might be helpful to them later.

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