Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What Kids Teach Us About Incentives

Taking the training wheels off of a kid's bike is a rite of passage of sorts. It marks a milestone in physical aptitude and also serves as a life analogy of any skill which requires practice and perseverance to master. There's a great deal of trepidation and hesitation before taking those training wheels off, and convincing a child of the upside of doing so is a challenge in of itself. For my two daughters, they had wallowed in their training-wheel state much longer than necessary and I was prepared to do something about it.

My youngest daughter celebrated a birthday about a month ago, and I came up with the idea of getting her a new bicycle. Even with her small stature, she was ready to graduate from her ten-inch bike and I thought it would complement all of the clothes she had received from her grandparents.

On the day of her birthday, I told her about my gift idea and on the spur of the moment, came up with a slight twist.

"Carissa, mommy and I are going to give you a bicycle for your birthday and you can pick out the one you want. But we want you to be able to ride without training wheels on your old (smaller) bike before we give you your new one. Okay?"

She paused for a second, and to my surprise asked, "Can I ride without training wheels today?" Obviously, she didn't want to waste one minute in delayed gratification in getting her new bike. With a brand new bike ready for the taking, she was going to get master riding on two wheel, skinned knees and elbows be damned.

So that afternoon, Carissa and I got ready to head out to the nearby school parking lot to practice two-wheel bike riding when her older sister asked us what we were doing. When told that her younger sister was going to bike without training wheels, Sophia bolted to attention and insisted that she join, as well, and that I remove the training wheels from her own bicycle. Of course, what older sister could live with the humiliation riding on trailing wheels behind a little sister who cycled freely without them?

In that parking lot, I've never seen such motivation and drive from my daughters, as they worked to gain momentum and balance themselves. My son and I ran with and pushed our daughters back and forth as they steadied themselves. They fell on occasion, but within an hour or so, they had reasonably gotten the hang of it. I was a proud dad,

I also enjoyed witnessing a reminder of human nature and how we respond to incentives. After failing to cajole my daughters into abandon their training wheels time after time, they ultimately responded to two things. Carissa was jolted into action with the promise of new bike and Sophia was jolted into action by the spirit of competition, perhaps mixed in the fear of humiliation of having her younger sister mastering this skill before she did.

In many ways, this is the the often seen analogy of the "carrot" (positive reinforcement) and the "stick" (negative reinforcement). Every day in my life, I'm driven to do things because of the promise of what I may find at the top of the mountain which I'm climbing. I'm also driven to do things because I fear the consequences of failure. And like Sophia, I am prone to using others as a measuring stick. The spirit of competition has the potential to be destructive, no doubt, but when used right, can be an effective source of drive and energy in the pursuit of things which are good and virtuous.

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