“What’s in it for me?” This is the line from the bad guy being asked to do - anything, right? I’d like to offer that maybe he’s the only honest one among us. Let’s be truthful, incentive drives all of our choices. We just have to correctly identify the “incentive” to see this. I don’t eat sweets because the incentive is getting fat. I eat sweets because they are yummy. The “getting fat” is a consequence for too much seeking of the incentive.
Using incentive to get what we want is not a bad thing. Giving a worker a bonus for his hard work or a promotion in recognition of her abilities is just smart leadership.
The challenge with gifted kids is that they weigh the incentives and sometimes decide the incentive is not worth the trouble… or the risk of failure. So the trick is to make the incentives unique and worth it. For instance, if every time a task is performed, a gold star is given, most gifted would tire of that. But if you said that fifty gold stars would earn a banana split, the gifted child will perform that task fifty times. There’s a challenge and a good reward for taking that challenge.
Equally important is comparing your incentive to the consequence. If the consequence is small, the incentive needs to be substantial to be worthy of the time spent. If I tell my students that a paper is due on Monday morning at 8:00 a.m. and that all late papers will receive a 10 pt. penalty, my gifted student will take the 10-point penalty because he got to enjoy his weekend, do the paper on Monday evening, and receive an A- or a B on it on Tuesday… an acceptable consequence. When my gifted students started utilizing the opportunity to choose to do late work, I had to change the plan. No late work accepted at all became the standard. So where’s the incentive there? Mine comes in the form of a really cool trip for those in honor society at the end of the year. Only those with a 3.2 GPA and higher get to go.
Parents have to be careful to distinguish incentive from conditioning. Incentive is something offered when asking for behavior above and beyond what is usually expected (i.e., straight A’s, extra work, becoming a National Merit finalist). When you reward a child for expected behavior, you are conditioning that child to expect to be rewarded. If you give your toddler a treat every time he is quiet in the department store, don’t expect him to behave without that treat. He’s going to cause a scene because you’ve conditioned him to expect treats for good behavior. No treat = bad behavior. I don’t get what I want = neither do you.
Next time you begin to use the “because I said so” or “because I’m the boss” argument with your gifted child, remember that we all love incentives. I’m not suggesting you go so far as to pay for grades. The incentive for doing well should be getting a good job. But I do think it’s okay to surprise your child with a venture (along the way and not tied directly to the report card results) on which you are taking him strictly because he is such a hard worker… kind of like a “bonus.” When your child sees that she is making you proud throughout the process, often that is incentive enough to do well. Still give her the venture, though. She earned it!