“What’s in it for me?” is a question never far from most people’s minds. That can be a good thing, if it keeps someone from foolishly investing time or money. But whether asked prudently or selfishly, it’s a question common to everyone we deal with—including, and perhaps especially, young children.
When a child wants to know, “What’s in it for me if I organize my room/complete my lessons/share my cookies?,” how do you respond? Below we look at several common answers—from the least to the most advisable.
Bad: “You’ll avoid getting spanked/failing this class/ending up in time-out.”
Here’s why: This approach may get a child to follow orders—though it may also generate active resistance and all its negative repercussions. But in either case, the message the child gets is: “You have no rights, and what you’re being told to do is going to be almost as negative an experience as the punishment for not doing it.”
Long-term results: Distaste for responsibility. Negative attitudes toward authority. “Might makes right” thinking. Lasting resentments between adult and child.
Unwise: “An A in the course/extra ice cream/a pat on the head.”
Here’s why: While this approach generates less immediate negativity than “I’ll punish you if you don’t follow orders,” it disassociates present cooperation from long-term gain, placing all focus on instant results. Message: “Obvious rewards are to be expected within a few hours/days/weeks of doing the right thing.”
Long-term results: Obsession with instant gratification. Refusal to cooperate without a guaranteed reward, or bitterness when cooperation returns no immediate benefit. Developing a “quitter complex,” dropping out of anything that fails to deliver prompt reward.
Less than ideal: “A high-paying job/first prize/popularity.”
Here’s why: This reduces emphasis on instant gratification, but still focuses on the most obvious and visible rewards—whether or not they match individual interests and passions. This approach also sets the bar dangerously high, implying, “The reward is ‘real’ only for top achievers. No matter what you accomplish, it’s worthless until you reach the top of the ladder ‘everyone’ says you should be climbing.”
Long-term results: Seeing other people as competitors and obstacles. Feeling inadequate even after a string of achievements. Tendency to quit growing once a certain achievement level is reached (or long before, if unable to meet expectations). Never appreciating one’s true, unique potential as an individual.
Best: “Self-respect. Respect from others. Good relationships. A chance to develop your initiative and follow your dreams.”
Here’s why: Granted, such concepts mean little as direct answers to a whine of “Do I have to do this math homework?” But they come across in such responses as “How/when would you like to do it? Could we have fun working together/celebrating each problem finished? You like to build things; do you know how grown-up engineers use math?” Message: “I respect you. Your opinion counts. You have the initiative to find new ways of doing things/new ways to use this.”
Long-term results: Dreaming big. Incentive to discover and realize one’s unique potential. Warm bonds between adult and child. And, ultimately, becoming a maximally effective contributing member of society—and passing on a truly rewarding legacy to the next generation.