“Daddy and I have an offer to make to you. If you can make three consecutive linked turns on your snowboard this weekend, we’ll buy you a video game, up to a $50 value.”
I’d never expected to hear these words coming out of my mouth and from the way T’s eyes lit up, he hadn’t either. This parental move went against every value Z and I have but we made it out of desperation.
T and snow season have been a source of frustration for us for a few years now. We initially started him on skis and then when he was seven, we went up to Tahoe with two other families for a weekend and he decided to copy one of his friends and start snowboarding. It’s a decision we regret. Three years later, he’s made progress but is pretty half-hearted about spending time on the slopes. He usually ends up abandoning us by mid afternoon and sits in the resort restaurant reading a book for an hour or two waiting for Z, M and me who are all skiers.
It kills us that, unlike his brother, he didn’t have the motivation to keep practicing. Financially, it really hurt too. Snowboarding, just like skiing, is an expensive sport once you add up all the gear, boots, board and lift ticket. Doing a few runs down the mountain wasn’t amortizing the cost the way we would have liked.
I thought that if we went to the snow with some other families with kids the same age as T and M that this would make it more fun for him. And it definitely helped but I didn’t see the kind of fun competition (“Race you down to the bottom!) that I thought we would see. Probably because all of T’s friends who were on snowboards are not as strong at is as he is because he’s had more practice.
Last weekend, we were going back to Tahoe and staying with friends who have a son the same age as M. I knew that, without his own friends around, T was likely going to do his usual habit of making a bit of an effort and then giving up if we didn’t find a way to motivate him.
The idea for coming up with an incentive for T came from the one point I liked in the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The author, Amy Chua, makes the case that often you don’t get pleasure from an activity until you’ve mastered it. But to master it, you have to practice and practice and practice. All too often, kids say they don’t enjoy something – guitar lessons, tap dance, taekwondo – and parents let them give up. Yet you also hear from adults saying that they wish their parents had pushed them to keep going with these activities and that they missed an opportunity.
T clearly had not reached a level of mastery where he was enjoying snowboarding and we knew from experience that just forcing him to practice resulted in incredibly frustrating runs where he would go for a little bit and then stop and just lie down in the snow, clearly miserable.
So, last weekend, there we were. With a rather expensive carrot dangling before him. And wow, the enthusiasm was definitely there. T was eager to hit the slopes as soon as possible.
The four of us went up on the chair lift together and then Z and M headed off to ski down one slope while T and I went for the easy run. We set off in high spirits but within 10 feet when T made his first attempt at a turn and failed, it all fell apart. He immediately sat down, hit the snow with frustration and then lay down.
I couldn’t believe it! Here he was giving up at the first attempt and we were at the situation I hated even faster than usual. He got up and started again. Same result. Again. And again. Realizing that T’s expectations of how easy it would be to earn the video game was completely out of kilter (we knew this would take hours of practice which was why we had made such a big offer), I summoned up my patience and suggested that we just switch to using this run as a warm-up and then start trying the turns on the next run.
Second run. Same situation. New brainwave from Mom. Clearly this was too big a goal. We needed to break it down and allow T to achieve small doses of success along the way. Feeling like a very bad parent, I said, “OK, let’s focus on just doing one complete turn using heel and toe edges. If you get that, I’ll buy you an ice cream.” T perked up. He set off again and pretty soon, he did one complete turn and gave me the thumbs up. “That’s one ice cream,” he called triumphantly.
Not all all sure that I should be offering all these incentives, I then offered T 30 minutes of video screen time on a school day if he could do two consecutive turns. This was a pretty significant deal as the boys are not allowed any video or TV time from Mondays through Thursdays.
On the chair lift up the third time, I told T about the time Z had decided that he wanted to guide Cherry Creek, a Class V stretch of river near Yosemite. “It’s an incredibly hard river,” I explained. “You have to pass tests to even be able to be part of a crew on it. Your Dad trained and trained for two seasons before he felt that he could do it. I was in Australia when he called me to tell me he’d guided his first run. I could feel the adrenalin from there. Dad was so excited about achieving something he worked so hard for. Sometimes, it takes time to learn how to do something but you’re going to feel so good about yourself when you do.”
Back to work he went. He tried to get the reward for turns that were almost there but I held firm. Clearly disappointed, he did keep going and I secretly hoped that my story about Z had sunk in. After a while, he made two consecutive turns too. Z and M, fresh from numerous speedy runs, turned up to offer support. T proudly told Z that he had achieved two turns. I sheepishly announced the additional incentives that had been required. Z, to his credit, went with the flow although I did get that look that married couples can share.
T decided that Z should stay with him for the next goal. I was a bit disappointed as I’d put so much effort – and used vast stores of patience – to get him this far, but I was in need of some fun runs myself so zoomed off with M. We came back a while later and T shouted “Mom! I really want to show you how I can do this! Let’s go back up to the top so you can see!”
Let me tell you, it was glorious. He literally glided across the snow and it was a thing of beauty. Z and I were in awe.
Back down at the restaurant for lunch, T surprised us by saying “I love snowboarding! I know I told you that I liked it before but I was just trying to please you. I didn’t really like it. But I love it now.” He was bubbling with enthusiasm and happily went back up with us for more runs until the lifts shut down.
Z and I were feeling pretty good about what we’d done to help T get to this level. But this weekend, I was talking to a Dad at the Scout’s Pinewood Derby Race and only got as far as saying that we’d offered T the video game before he shut me off. “That’s terrible,” he said. “That’s such a slippery slope. What are you going to offer him next? A car?” It was clear that he didn’t want to hear any more so he never got to learn that T had mastered linked turns.
I felt horrible, though. What had we done? We never want to have kids who will only do something if they will get a reward. It also clearly went against everything I read in Daniel Pink’s excellent book, “Drive.” He talks about how motivation can actually be harmed by offering incentives.
The only thing I can comfort myself with is the fact that T has experienced working hard and gaining mastery over something. He can now start to have fun with snowboarding which means he will do more runs and keep getting better. In an article in TIME about Amy Chua’s book, there’s a quote from Hara Estroff Marano, author of “A Nation of Wimps” that I’m going to rely on:
Research demonstrates that children who are protected from grappling with difficult tasks don’t develop what psychologists call mastery experiences,” Marano explains. “Kids who have this well-earned sense of mastery are more optimistic and decisive; they’ve learned that they’re capable of overcoming adversity and achieving goals.” Children who have never had to test their abilities, says Marano, grow into “emotionally brittle” young adults who are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
Yes, I wish that T had found the inner motivation within himself to get to this level. But I’m glad that we were able to help him reach a new stage of mastery in snowboarding. It’s clearly an important one that opens up the sport to him in a way that wasn’t possible before.
Meanwhile, we’ll relegate this particular parenting technique way, way to the back of our tool box and hope we’re never tempted to use it again.
Have you ever offered your child an incentive like this? Do you think it was the wrong thing to do with T?