Avoiding the Backlash of Bargaining
Dr. James Sutton, Psychologist
Not long ago, I spoke with a mother who had promised her son a car if he would only pass his classes for one semester. A car!
He failed. No car. Mom was stunned. She was confident that, if she upped the ante, the boy would deliver on his grades.
A child or teen’s refusal of high-dollar incentives for what seems like reasonable compliance confuses and frustrates a lot of parents. But with difficult and defiant youngsters, it happens all the time.
When we rely on the power of a reward or incentive to elicit a specific response from a youngster, we’re essentially striking a bargain. The problem is that bargains can be refused. Check this scenario.
Mary’s walking home from school. As she approaches the house, Dad, struggling with the leaves in the front yard, offers his daughter a deal:
Mary, if you’ll take a minute and help me bag these leaves, I’ll give you an ice cream sandwich.
“No, thanks, Dad,” Mary replies. “I really don’t care for an ice cream sandwich right now. But thanks, anyway.” Then she disappears into the house.
I suppose you could make the case that the reward wasn’t strong enough to draw Mary to the task. But if you follow that reasoning, what would it have taken? A ski trip to Aspen? A new Ferrari? Be careful with this stuff, because there can be powerful rewards for not accepting a bargain. Here are two powerful ones:
1. Tangibles don’t necessarily outweigh intangibles. Youngsters, especially those strong in oppositional and defiant behavior, often get a bigger bang out of saying “No!” than receiving and enjoying the reward. (Besides, saying “No!” means Mary doesn’t have to mess with the leaves.)
2. Defiant behavior has a payoff. I believe many youngsters are drawn into defiant behavior because of the “rush” they get from the outcomes they create. Result: Outcomes, such as the visible frustration of parents and teachers, reinforce behavior. Problems simply continue on.
What if Dad took a different approach and promised Mary … oh, let’s say … NOTHING! It might go something like this:
Oh, Mary, I’m sure glad to see you. I’m having the dickens of a time trying to hold these bags and stuff the leaves into them, too. Would you hold the bags for me? It’ll only take a minute.
It’s been my experience that Mary would likely help her father with the task. It’s quick, and it’s a one-time request. In fact, it would probably take Mary more time and effort to refuse to help her father. In using this approach, Dad reaches out his daughter in a moment when her defiance is taking a break. She’s not “prepared” to be difficult. You might call it a Good Deed Distraction.
So what does Dad do with all those ice cream sandwiches in the freezer? Well, he might offer one to Mary after dinner. It might go something like this:
Mary, you came along today when I was about to pull my hair out trying to stuff the leaves into those bags. Thanks; I appreciated your help more than I can say. Oh, can I interest you in dessert?
It’s the same ice cream sandwich, but a very different outcome. ###
As a child and adolescent psychologist and former Special Education teacher, Dr. James Sutton shows a palpable compassion for young people, especially those who struggle. He is in demand for his expertise on emotionally and behaviorally troubled youngsters and his skill for speaking, writing and training on this subject. His monthly publication, the ODD Management Digest, is available at no cost through his website, www.DocSpeak.com.