Wednesday, April 4, 2018

When a Reward is Not a Reward

A few weeks ago Ethan came home from school with a paper. All the kids in his class who'd scored high marks for good behavior were invited to a special breakfast before the start of the school day to reward them for their exceptional behavior.

"That's so nice," I ooohed. Ethan grumbled.

The morning of the breakfast did not start well at all. He'd had trouble falling asleep the night before and wanted to sleep late rather than get up early, of all things, for the breakfast.

Then he couldn't find his homework. And he realized he had health that day and really, really didn't want to go to school at all. (He hates health. Who can blame him?). He wanted to play with his circuits. Lately he's loved doing his circuits. School was an interruption.

"We need to get going," I urged.

"But what about my bagel?" Ethan's favorite breakfast is a bagel with butter. He'd eat it just about every day if I let him.

"Eeth, you can't have a bagel today. They said it's a pancake breakfast."

"But I want my bagel!" I could feel his anxiety rising.

"Look," I said, deciding to bargain. "If you get ready, I'll make you a bagel too, since you hardly ever eat at these school breakfasts."

He liked this idea, but didn't want to get ready. Today the world was against him. This Tuesday was like a Monday. I tried to tell him so many people feel the same way, getting up not wanting to go to work or school. Or health class. It was part of life. You just had to push through.

The pushing was feeling like slogging through mud. By the time he had stopped shooting baskets in his room and doing other fiddling around, there was no time for a bagel.

"WHY?? Why do we have to do this?? Why can't I just have my bagel and relax!!??" he wailed.

"Ethan, this is supposed to be a REWARD, you know, not torture."

"Well it's NOT a reward for me!" he shot back.


I knew he was right. It wasn't a reward for him. This special pancake breakfast was an interruption to his schedule; a disruption of the norm.

Getting to school early, having a different breakfast, being forced to make conversation with peers and teachers in an unfamiliar setting...these were scary propositions.

I knew it wasn't his two teachers' fault. They were doing something commendable in making sure to recognize this group. It's just...for Ethan, it was more like facing a punishment. Or at least a difficult homework assignment.

It reminded me of the time my reward for high honors in my small private school was going out to lunch. Everyone else at the lunch turned out to be older than me. Torture. Then there was the perfect attendance dinner in 9th grade in which I was assigned to sit at a table with a girl who hated me. I still shudder.

We got to the school and followed the smells of pancakes down to his math/science teacher's classroom. The kids were sitting around a table. Ethan lurked at the door, pacing and staring intently at a bulletin board. "Don't make me go in," he pleaded.

I felt simultaneously bad while knowing I had to give him that gentle shove in. It might be harder for him than any other kid, and we were compassionate about that, but -- he's a not quite typical kid in a typical world. He will face these situations again. We have to keep encouraging to take another step, to make the harder choice.

It's not just him. It's all of us. It's learning how to do something less instantly gratifying now to help us gain something much greater for the future. I have so much to learn, when it comes to this lesson.

That afternoon Ethan came home gushing. "The pancakes were CHOCOLATE CHIP!' he announced. "They were so good! I loved that breakfast!"

For a moment, I felt a little smug. "Now aren't you glad you went?" I asked.

"Well...kind of. But I still didn't really like it," he said. "Can I PLEASE have my bagel tomorrow?" he pleaded.

The reward really hadn't been a reward. Yet it was -- one a little less tangible but rather part of a very long process of laying building blocks for life.

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