Parenting in the Age of Excess

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I have noticed a concerning trend in my clinical practice. When I ask parents to develop a list of potential rewards, for their children to earn, for engaging in the hard work of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety, and learning to gradually face their fears, I often observe a stumped look. They state something along the lines of, "my child has everything he/she needs and wants so I'm not sure what rewards would be appropriate.

This phenomenon has got me thinking, what is the cost of giving it too much? The only legal requirements of what we must give our children is food, clothing and shelter. All benefits above this baseline are privileges to be earned, by meeting or exceeding the requirements of effective living. It is all too easy to give cranky toddlers the superhero or Dora toys at Target, which they are so relentlessly pleading for. The short-term benefit of this minor expense is an hour or two of peace and quiet...which we all know is priceless. But  the long-term cost of this "deal with the devil" is that children learn all it takes to obtain their desired outcome is cantankerous behavior.

I have tried to keep this lesson front of mind, in raising my three children. For example, my five-year-old daughter recently declared, "The only thing I want, in the whole world, is sparkly fuzzy winter boots". And so, we sat down together and brainstormed what she was willing to do to earn these boots. We came up with a 10 day behavior modification plan, which entailed her replacing some ineffective coping behaviors (for example, stomping her feet or punching the air when frustrated) with more effective coping behaviors (for example, stating, "I'm having a hard time can you please help me.") After 10 days of utilizing these new coping tools, she would earn her shiny new boots.

The plan was a huge success (although around day 5 she stated it was just too hard to control her temper and that she would never be able to make it to day 10). The smile on her face when she received her reward of the new boots and more importantly, learned that she has more control over temper than she ever imagined possible, was fantastic. So, the next time your child requests a new item or privilege, consider putting it on a "to be earned log" and you will always have a handy reward list to use, to assist in developing new, more effective behaviors.