Earning by Doing

Every parent has dreams for their kids: Success…health…happiness…fulfillment. 

We want these things not for our own benefit–I hope–but because we love them so damn much. 

And in trying to ensure that these things happen, we expose them to things that we hope enrich their lives. 

My son loves music, for instance–listening, singing, dancing. He’s fascinated by my guitars and drum set, and has expressed interest in learning something

So we signed him up for piano lessons. 

It went great! He really enjoyed his first lesson, and took to it readily and eagerly. My wife and I were thrilled, especially since we had just taken my mother’s piano off of her hands after my parents’ recent move. 

Of course, our son’s teacher wanted him to practice at home, ideally three times per week. Why wouldn’t she? And why wouldn’t my wife and I?

Simple, right?

Quiz time: In two months of taking lessons, guess how many times he practiced?

If you said “Zero,” consider yourself a winner. 

“It’s boring!” he’d say, finding something else to do. He also thinks most things are boring, including school (my son!), so we took this with a grain of salt. 

But you know what? Even with incentives from us and his teacher, he would not touch the damn keyboard to save his life. 

So here came a fatherly conundrum: Do I force him to stick with something he clearly doesn’t enjoy because I know it’s good for him, or do I seek other learning avenues that appeal to him?

My boy is what you’d call “strong-willed,” which research has taught me really means he’s big on independence, autonomy, and choices.

In other words, he doesn’t like being told what to do without a reason and a say in the matter

He also responds best to experiential learning.

Sounds familiar…

Mind you, he’s not quite five, so I’m not exactly having a structured debate with him. But I do try to listen to him and treat him like a human being. And I’d rather not create the association in him of “music” with “negativity.”


Enter Legos. 

He’s always been obsessed with them, which is a great thing. There was a particular set, a castle, he’s wanted for months. 

So my wife and I struck upon the idea, prior to canceling piano lessons, that if he did X amount of lessons, we’d get him the set.

Nope. 

And so, with heavy heart, we discontinued the lessons. 

I know I could have pushed him, and I know he not only could have gotten good at piano, but it would have benefited him immeasurably–music is wonderful like that. 
This would be a tougher nut to crack. How do I motivate him? He’s a really sharp kid (everyone thinks their kid is sharp), but he never seems to want to put in the reps. 

Yet like I said, I try to listen to him. 

Lately he tells us he wants to skip age five and go right to six.

“Okay,” I said. “Six-year-olds can read and write.”

This sounds odd, right? Like a non sequiter? And kind of mean? But listen: Ever since we moved, taking him out of the fantastic preschool he was attending, his writing and reading, as it is, has backslider dramatically. 

We’ve been trying to get him to practice on his own using some workbooks we’ve purchased, but to little avail.

“If you can do ten lesson,” I told him, “I’ll get you that Lego set.”

This he could get behind. So I whipped up a list and stuck it to the fridge, letting him check off each successful lesson. 

“You’re going to earn these Legos,” I told him. 

“Earning things is silly,” he said three lessons into our deal, frustrated and cranky. And of course, as he says, bored. 

See, the kid gets impatient when he can’t do something right away. Not surprising. I used to be the exact same way. 

So I leaned on him, explaining why but still being firm. I told him, “Do some now, do some later, do some tomorrow, but you don’t get the Legos until you do ten.” Hey, someone’s got to be the cranky guy at the head of the table

“You’re going to earn this,” I said, “and it’s going to feel so good when you get it.”

It only took the little son-of-a-gun a week to do all ten lessons. 

Now, is this bribery? Of course it’s bribery. But so is our modern economy, truthfully. Except that it’s voluntary. Everyone (theoretically) follows the same rules: Want something? Earn it!

His excitement was palpable as we drove to the toy store. He was so happy, so proud of himself. And I was proud of him. I hope that feeling lasts in him longer than the joy of having that Lego set. 

And I need to think of other incentives to keep him going. For little kids, the extrinsic motivations are more powerful. But I’m going to try to inculcate some intrinsic ones while I’m at it. 

After all, I can’t trust the schools to do this. 

Everybody gets a trophy? Not in my house. 

Follow me on Twitter @DaytimeRenegade and Gab.ai @DaytimeRenegade

And check out my Instagram here

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