How often do you know you are going to do something even as you know you shouldn't? For example, if I go to a potluck, I might tell myself not to eat seconds but even as I say this, I kind of expect I will eat too many desserts and regret it. Kids do this too, even the smallest ones. They know they shouldn't drop cheerios on the floor so they stare at you with a cheeky grin on their faces as they pick them up, one by one, and drop them on the floor. And then there is a meltdown when you take the rest of the cereal away, as if they couldn't have predicted they were doing something wrong.
I have been thinking about this as I read the gospels. In Matthew's account of the last supper 26:34-35, Jesus tells Peter, "This very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." Peter answers, Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." But later that night, Peter does deny knowing Jesus three times, a fact he doesn't seem to realize until the rooster crows. At this point, he went outside and wept bitterly.
I would like to imagine that I am better than Peter. If Jesus personally warned me of an action I would do THREE times, I would be on my best guard not to do that action. I would like to imagine my attention span would at least last through the night, particularly since this is when Jesus warns it will happen. But the reality is that I am guilty of this and so are my children. It feels that, since I have asked so many times for certain rules to be followed, they should be able to follow them without any question. But over and over, there are rules that get broken: turn out the lights, rinse out the sink, empty your pockets before putting clothes in the wash, etc.
How do we break this cycle? There is power in word choice. Jesus told Peter what he WOULD do. "You will disown me three times." Peter responds with what he WILL NOT do, "I will never disown you." People seem to respond better to positive intent than negative. If we turn this around and Jesus said, "You won't be faithful to me tonight," and Peter responded, "I will always be faithful to you." the result might have been different.
I have an alarm to get up at 6 am. It says "exercise for age 60" because this is my motivation to get up. Every time I want to stay in bed, I have to think about why I am getting up. My expectation for myself in 16 years is to run in the forest, hike with my dogs, travel the world and explore beautiful places. If I have grandchildren then I intend to play with them actively. If I don't work on this now, I will not be able to catch up. I have a plan and a vision and this motivates me. If the alarms said, "Don't be lazy," I am not sure I would get up every day to exercise.
I think this is why we tell children to "look both ways before crossing the street," "buckle up," "criss cross applesauce." These are positively worded commands they can easily remember. It might be useful to work on reframing other expectations for them. Instead of "don't turn on the TV until homework is done," it might stick better to say, "Homework first, then screen time." It is tricky to think of positive statements for everything we don't want them to do. Make a list of the actions you don't want to see and then try to spin it in a more positive light. Some more examples:
"Keep your fingers out of your mouth" rather than "Don't bite your finger nails."
"Stay in your room until 7am" instead of "Don't wake mommy up before 7am"
I don't mean to imply all of this is easy. Some of it has to do with motivation. There are two type of rewards- intrinsic rewards and extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic rewards are things we do that bring us pleasure. Extrinsic rewards are things we do to get something from someone else. As parents, we offer a lot of extrinsic rewards to get our kids to do things. M&Ms for using the toilet, allowance, etc. Adults certainly are motivated by extrinsic rewards as well. I love my job but would do it less if I didn't get paid, for instance. There are things within my job that I do becuase of all the intrinsic rewards. It makes me happy when children say adorable things. I love it when I can listen to and reassure worried parents or anxious teenagers. I don't need a paycheck to enjoy this. If we can work on teaching our kids to find intrinsic rewards in the tasks of life, they might learn, in time, to be more self motivated.
I did have a parent ask me to talk about rewards in my blog! (This request was very exciting to me as I want to address real parent questions.) Giving our kids experiences as rewards, time alone with a parent or time to show off skills to the family, will make them feel incredibly special. It is easier to give a child candy for doing the right thing than to promise 15 minutes of undivided attention. The benefit to the latter is that it starts as an extrinsic reward but morphs into an intrinsic one. If you read to your child as a prize, they gain a love of language and might go on to enjoy reading. If you go for jumps in puddles or spend time playing tag, they might learn how much they love exercise. As parents, if we can encourage them, with our external rewards, to find intrinsic purpose for their lives, we instill in them a far reaching skill as well as accomplishing the short term goal of cleaning their room or using the toilet.
Loving Jesus is the ultimate reward we want our kids to understand. His love for them is an extrinsic reward in the sense that they already have it. There is nothing they can do to earn it. But if we can teach them to look for God, to build their identities in Him, to listen to His truths, they can gain in intrinsic peace that comes with knowing Him. Notice how all of these goals are framed in a positive way, encouraging our kids toward something instead of telling them to stop. This is still something I need to work on more, but being positive feels better to me so I am going to keep trying.